Lakeland, Fla. — It was Monday that Tigers right-hander Michael Fulmer sat and joked with reporters about what his role might be in April.
“I know I have three innings in me, maybe 45-50 pitches,” he said. “Probably all I can be is an opener right now.”
Twenty-four hours and one tragic bullpen session later, all the laughter has ceased. The Tigers announced Tuesday that Fulmer has been recommended for Tommy John surgery. His season, almost certainly, is over.
“Following a recent bullpen session… Fulmer began to experience right elbow soreness,” said the statement released by the Tigers. “Based on the results of an MRI, and after receiving a second opinion from Dr. James Andrews, Tommy John Surgery has been recommended in order to reconstruct the ulnar collateral ligament.”
The statement also said Fulmer was seeking a third opinion. Fulmer did not immediately respond to a text message from The News.
"Your thoughts go towards him more than anything else," manager Ron Gardenhire told reporters after the Tigers lost a 3-1 spring game to the Pirates in Bradenton. "Tough, but we'll see how everything goes. I mean, that's all we can do now.”
Gardenhire said he hadn't seen Fulmer since the news came out.
"I can't wait to get a chance to talk to him and see what his thoughts are," Gardenhire said. "I'm sure he's really disappointed right now, but we'll see what happens.”
There were signs that something wasn’t right all spring. Fulmer’s velocity, normally 96-97 mph, barely topped 91-92. But the Tigers, and Fulmer, felt that was a function of regaining strength and power in his surgically-repaired right knee.
The Tigers pulled Fulmer from the spring rotation after three starts, fearing that he was putting too much stress on his arm, pitching essentially without much drive from his lower body. He threw one bullpen without the brace on Friday. He threw his second bullpen Monday, and that’s when the elbow flared.
Fulmer knew before Tuesday that he wasn’t likely to start the season on time.
“It’s going to be tough,” he said Monday. “Obviously, I want to be out there. But I don’t want to be that guy who goes out there at 80 percent efficiency and not help the team win. I’d rather be at 110 percent, knowing I am healthy and fully confident I can put up zeros.”
For the most part, Fulmer hasn’t had any serious arm issues. His 2017 season was ended in September because he needed an ulnar transposition procedure in his right elbow.
Fulmer, 26, had his meniscus surgery in September, which was performed by Andrews. Andrews, of course, is the pioneering specialist on Tommy John surgeries.
Right-hander Spencer Turnbull and lefty Daniel Norris are the candidates to replace Fulmer in the rotation, but Gardenhire didn't want to talk about that Tuesday.
“We're just trying to get through this day," he said. "You always plan for this. We have multiple starters. That's what we've said. Right now it's more about thinking about Fulmer than anything else.
"We'll take care of the baseball part and fill in a hole or whatever. Let's just see how it goes with him and see where we go with that, and we'll work from there. I feel bad for him right now more than anything else.”