Lakeland, Fla. — The brace on his right leg was less noticeable Monday in Michael Fulmer’s second start of the spring — at least cosmetically. He was wearing custom-made baseball pants that were much roomier than the ones he usually wears.
You could hardly see the outline of the brace.
As for how much he noticed it during his three innings of work in the Tigers’ 9-5 Grapefruit League win over the Cardinals, that’s a different story.
Fulmer threw 49 pitches over three innings, giving up a long, party-deck home run to the first batter he faced — Kolten Wong — and then impressively worked himself out of trouble in the second and third innings.
“Honestly, today was the best I felt since spring training started,” Fulmer said. “Everything was a lot smoother. The ball was coming out good and everything was a lot less violent — a lot smoother, maybe a little bit sneaky.”
Sneaky has never been a defining characteristic for Fulmer; overpowering more summed him up, especially during his Rookie of the Year campaign in 2016. Even last year, coming off ulnar transposition surgery and dealing with nagging pain in his knee, he still averaged 95-96 mph on his fastball.
In his first spring start, his fastball range was 89-91. On Monday he was 90-92, and he hit 93 one time.
“I’m not worried about it at all,” he said. “If it keeps going up every outing, we will be spot-on for the regular season.”
The brace, which protects his surgically-repaired right knee, forces him to taper his drive toward home plate. It restricts his ability to activate his heel. He pushes off the balls of his foot now, and his motion to the plate is far less violent.
That is a good thing for the health and stability of his knee. Whether it puts a permanent crimp in his velocity remains to be seen.
"We're going to have to give it time," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "It's kind of like starting over. Coming off arm surgery, or coming off knee surgery -- you've got to give it time to let it happen.
"It's spring training. He's got plenty of time.
Both Gardenhire and Fulmer are tired of answering velocity questions, understandably.
“I have what, three or four more starts down here,” Fulmer said. “If I keep increasing by this much every start, then on opening day, everyone will be happy. If it keeps going up, it should be just right when the season starts, which is perfect.”
Fulmer allowed four hits and two walks in his three innings. Getting two punch-outs, one with a two-seamer (looking) and the other with a change-up (swinging). He stranded three runners with one out in the second inning.
In the third, he stranded runners at first and second with no outs.
"The second and third innings were great, the ball was coming out better and I was spotting up better," Fulmer said. "There's just some more adjusting to do. Once I find these mechanics we've been working on, I think it's going to work out quite well."
His sinker had better movement than in the previous start and he was especially encouraged by his change-up, which he threw at 84-85 mph, and at 87 mph.
"All I know is, he felt really good with the way the ball was coming out of his hand in the second and third innings," Gardenhire said. "His change-up and slider were really good and that's what you are looking for.
"Whether the velocity gets going with it, who knows? But I've seen it a million times in baseball. A guy's throwing 90 in spring training and you go, 'Oh, no, there's a problem.' But by the end of spring he's back up to 95. Give it time."
Home run derby
The ball was flying out of Publix Field on Monday. The Tigers hit five home runs.
"The ball was carrying to right, for sure, but hitting out to left was a little harder," Gardenhire said.
That's why the two bombs Mikie Mahtook hit to the back of the berm in left were so impressive — two home runs on the birthday of his twin sisters, no less. The first one, off Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright, was to left-center field and the second nearly cleared the berm down the line in left.
"The other day I hit a balls really good," Mahtook said. "I just missed one to right and then I hit one to center that (Braves' Ender) Inciarte ran down. So I've been feeling really good.
"I've always known it was there. I've showed it in spurts my entire career. It's just, consistency is the big thing."
Not to be outdone, Jeimer Candelario did clear the berm in left with his missile shot in the fifth inning. Candelario has been swinging the bat really well left-handed this spring, but this one came hitting right-handed.
Jordy Mercer, who also doubled, hit his first dinger of the spring, an opposite-field shot to the Tigers’ bullpen in right. Catcher Kade Scivicque blasted on to the berm in the eighth.
Mize firing bullets
Right-hander Casey Mize, the first pick of the draft last year, allowed a run in two innings of work. It was clear his arm was fresh, to put it mildly.
"You could see he was overpowering," Gardenhire said. "He was really letting it fly."
His fastball that first inning of work, the seventh, hit 96, then 97 and even 98 mph. He struck out center fielder Randy Arozarena on three pitches, Wong on four pitches and then got a soft ground out to the end the inning.
He walked back to back hitters in the eighth and wound up allowing a run after a bunt and a sacrifice fly.
Around the horn
Nick Castellanos, on his 27th birthday, had a pair of doubles. Josh Harrison also had two hits.
... Joe Jimenez pitched a scoreless fourth inning, allowing only an infield single. His fastball was sitting comfortably at 95 mph.
... The Cardinals outfielders put on a show, too. Miguel Cabrera was robbed twice, once by Arozarena and again by right fielder Dylan Carlson. Carlson’s play was spectacular. Cabrera hit a hard, slicing liner angling toward the right-field line. Carlson snared on a dive.
... Christin Stewart was robbed of a hit by left fielder Jose Martinez.