Lakeland, Fla. — When a musician first sits down with a particularly difficult piece of music, he or she doesn't try to learn it all at once. They break it down, measure by measure, note by note if the passage is uncommonly fast or tricky.
It would be overwhelming to learn it any other way.
Michael Fulmer is re-learning how to pitch after knee surgery much the same way — step by step, literally from the head on down.
"He was so out of whack coming into spring training," Tigers pitching coach Rick Anderson said. "He was flying off his upper half, his head was moving all over the place. I said we aren't going to take five things and do them all at once. Let's go one, two, three, and that's giving the knee time to strengthen.
"Now he's showing good with it all. And once he gets his legs into it, I am pretty confident it will come back."
It, of course, is Fulmer's velocity. The last three seasons, Fulmer attacked hitters like a snorting, stomping bull, pouring 96-mph four-seamers and two-seamers at them. Since the knee surgery, wearing a protective and somewhat restrictive brace, that velocity is down in the 88-91 range.
He made his third spring start Saturday, in a 6-4 spring loss to the Braves, and threw one pitch at 92 mph, the other 43 between 82-91. But, to Fulmer and Anderson, everything is right on course.
"It's not like it just vanished," Fulmer said. "It's going to come back. My command today was the best it's been this spring. The sinker was moving all over the place. I got a couple of punch-outs with it, the change-up, too."
He gave up four hits — only one hit hard — and two runs, with a walk and three strikeouts in three innings. The encouraging part: He faced 14 batters and got eight of them to hit ground balls.
"I thought you guys were result-oriented," Fulmer said, gently chiding the media. "If my velo is up and I have a bad game, you're result-oriented. If my velo is down and the results are good, you still worry about the velo. Which are you going to take?
"I can't be mad at getting soft contact and ground balls. Trust me, I'd rather be where my velo was today and get outs, then have my normal velo and not get outs."
Fulmer, with three starts left this spring, is entering the final phase of his recovery. Starting this week, in the weight room and in his bullpens, he's going to start activating his legs more in his delivery.
"Talking to the trainers all week, the strength is there and the pain is gone," Fulmer said. "Now I need to work on the explosiveness and that's something we haven't really been focused on.
"When you are coming off surgery, you are working to strengthen all the muscles. You aren't really working on those fast-twitch fibers quite yet."
As Fulmer said, all his power comes from his right leg, his drive leg. The arm, is said, is just along for the ride. So, beginning this week, Fulmer enters explosiveness training. Doing more cutting, moving laterally, throwing heavy balls against a wall, getting that force back off his drive leg.
"We're just trying to keep him in order," Anderson said. "I tell all our pitchers. It's a process. We start with the head, shoulders, and with Michael, we were staying away from the legs a little bit.
"Now it's time to get the legs back into it. He's feeling great and that's all I care about ... Once we put this last piece in, I am excited about it."
So is Fulmer.
"The only time I am going to start worrying is if I am not going to be built up enough (arm strength) for the start of the season," he said. "But that's not happening. Everything is going well. The arm is in great shape and now the last thing that's going to come in the explosiveness."
Around the horn
Tigers relievers Shane Greene, Blaine Hardy and Victor Alcantara pitched scoreless innings. Greene had his second straight six-pitch outing. Alcantara actually got four outs in his inning — one of his two strikeouts reached base when the ball eluded Greiner.
... The Braves hit back-to-back home runs off lefty Daniel Stumpf in the seventh. Cristian Pache hit a two-run shot and Jefrey Ramos followed with a solo homer.
... Offensively, Christin Stewart continues to swing a hot bat. Against left-handed Braves starter Sean Newcomb, the left-handed hitting Stewart ambushed a first-pitch fastball in the third inning and laced a two-run, two-out double off the chalk line in right field. He was hitting .333 at that point, with an OPS over 1.000.