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Michael Fulmer-Tyler Alexander tandem could end up filling Tigers' fifth rotation spot

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit — It might not have been entirely coincidental that Tyler Alexander and Michael Fulmer pitched against each other in the Tigers’ intrasquad game Monday. In fact, it might not be the last time we see them pitching on the same day.

With Daniel Norris still out indefinitely (COVID-19 protocol), and Opening Day now just 11 days away, there’s an opening forming in the Tigers’ rotation.

“I think there are options depending on the health of the rest of the pitching staff,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “There’s all kinds of ways we can go.”

Either Fulmer or Alexander could win the spot outright, of course. Or, at least initially, the two could become a tandem, making piggyback starts like Norris and Drew VerHagen did last season.

“Fulmer could go as an opener, that type of thing,” Gardenhire said, certainly not setting anything in stone. “He still has to build up, innings-wise and all of that.”

Fulmer, coming off Tommy John surgery, made his second intrasquad start Monday and needed 57 pitches to record seven outs. That’s the bad news. The good news is he finished with five straight outs including a clean, 10-pitch third inning, striking out Cameron Maybin and getting two rollover ground balls to first base from left-handed hitters Christin Stewart and Harold Castro.

Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer works on the mound during an intrasquad game at Comerica Park on Monday.

“I think what you are seeing when he was out there and doing well, his body tenses up and the ball doesn’t come out as well,” Gardenhire said. “That last inning he finally relaxed. I told him, ‘It looked like you took a deep breath and weren’t trying to throw it 95 mph, you were just making pitches.’

“His slider was sharper and he threw a clean inning because of that. When you try to muscle up it always works in reverse. I think the felt that, too.”

Fulmer recorded only one out in a 25-pitch first inning, allowing a pair of hits and two walks. In the second inning, 22 pitches, he allowed a single to Jordy Mercer, a double to Grayson Greiner and a two-run single to Willi Castro.

“It seemed like the ball was jumping out of his hand,” Mercer said. “I know he probably wishes he had more velocity but it was coming out good, it really is. He’s got some cut on it, which will help, and that slider.

“It’s just good to see him go out and compete. People don’t understand, it’s been a while since he’s thrown in competition. It’s a lot different than throwing batting practice. His stuff is there. Obviously he needs to refine it and it’s going to take a little time. But there were a lot of positives to take from this.”

More: 'Pretty cool': Tigers' Riley Greene goes over wall to rob C.J. Cron of home run

Typical of players coming back from Tommy John surgery, Fulmer struggled with command and consistency. In the Castro at-bat, for example, he threw a wicked slider under his hands to get ahead in the count 1-2. But when he came back to that pitch on 2-2, he left it over the middle of the plate.

“You’ve got to understand, he’s been out a long time,” Gardenhire said. “And he wants to pitch. It’s going to take a little while before he can totally relax and do what he’s done his whole life.”  

Alexander strong

After giving up a couple of home runs in his first camp outing, Alexander breezed through three innings, allowing three singles with four strikeouts.

“He’s just one of those guys you can stick in the bullpen or in the rotation or use him as an opener,” Gardenhire said. “He’s very resilient, got that rubber arm. He made some really good pitches out there today, with that change-up and a nice breaking ball.

“He’s a very valuable pitcher. He brings a lot to the table.”

Among the things he brings to the table, as he demonstrated in his 13-game, eight-start debut last year, is a fearlessness. He doesn’t break the radar gun — average fastball at 90.6 mph — but he still attacks hitters. His 3% walk rate was in the top 1% of baseball last season.

“The more time you have, the more comfortable and confident you are,” Alexander said. “Getting that out of the way last year and having some success and throwing well and proving to myself that I can compete at the highest level — that was huge.”

More: Wojo: In sprint to the future, could Tigers actually make some noise?

As for what role he might play this season, he prefers to start but all he cares about is having a spot on the 30-man roster next week.

“They’re doing the same thing now with me that they were doing in spring training 1.0 — just building me up as a starter,” Alexander said. “Then I can fill any role — long relief, start, piggyback, whatever. They want me stretched out as much as I can.

“I want to start but I’m down for absolutely anything as long as I’m here.”

Perhaps the highlight of Alexander’s outing Monday was his strikeout of C.J. Cron to end the first inning. He got him to swing over top of a 2-2 slider.

“I’m 25, turning 26 (Tuesday) and my entire baseball career I’ve been working on my slider,” he said. “It’s the hardest pitch for me to throw. It’s been a work-in-progress my entire career. I like where it’s at now, but I’m still working on it.”

Around the horn

The Tigers waived right-handed pitcher Zack Godley on Monday.

“We just wanted to give him an opportunity to catch on with somebody else,” Gardenhire said. “We’ve got some young men lined up here and we’ve got a lot of options to try and put together a bullpen. We just told him we wanted to make sure he had an opportunity, but we’re going a different route.”

…Outfielder Travis Demeritte missed his four day of work with a sore groin. Gardenhire said he has begun to take swings in the cage but he’s not ready to return.

In the meantime, non-roster invitee Jorge Bonifacio is making a bid for a roster spot. He’s had two hits and a walk the last two days and he’s made a couple of tough-chance defensive plays in right field.

…Catcher Jake Rogers doubled and scored a run Monday. He is 3-for-6 with a double, home run and two RBIs in limited playing time in this camp. On Monday, he hit his double to the gap in right-center field, a testament to his new hitting approach.

“We had a good talk the other day,” Gardenhire said. “At the end of the day, it’s you who’s standing up there with the bat. You’ve got to feel comfortable and find something that works. Our hitting coaches are trying to make sure he puts the ball in play more. He can be a real impact player behind the plate and he’s really matured last year to this year.”

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky