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Fulmer-Alexander tandem looking like a fit in rotation as Tigers drop Summer Camp finale

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Cincinnati — Nothing is official until manager Ron Gardenhire announces it, but it sure seems like the fourth starter in the Tigers rotation will be the tandem of Michael Fulmer and Tyler Alexander.

The two, as they were Wednesday in the final dress rehearsal against the Reds, have had their start days synced up most of this month.

"We're not going to announce our plans to the world so they know what's going on here," Gardenhire said after the Tigers fell 2-1 to the Reds at Great American Ballpark in the last exhibition before Friday's season opener. "I'm not going to tell you exactly what's going to happen, but that could happen." 

Fulmer, facing big league hitters other than those on his own team for the first time in 22 months, was impressive.

After giving up a single and a double to the first two batters he faced, Fulmer, who threw five straight fastballs (92-93 mph), began mixing in his slider to good effect. He got Eugenio Suarez to pop to second, struck out Nick Castellanos looking at a fastball (92) and got Mike Moustakas to ground out to first.

"The first two guys whacked him and I looked at Andy (pitching coach Rick Anderson) like, 'What are we doing,'" Gardenhire said. "But after that he was lights out. Just don't panic.

"He said the same thing when he came back in. He asked if we were ready to take him out after two hitters. I said, 'No, dude, you are fine.'"

Fulmer's second inning was even better. He struck out the side, all on swing-and-miss fastballs. He put down Matt Davidson (93), Nick Senzel (94) and Curt Casali (93).

Detroit Tigers Pitcher Michael Fulmer (32) pitchers the first inning of the exhibition game against the Detroit Tigers at Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati.

Fulmer’s night was over: two scoreless innings, 31 pitches, 16 strikes, eight swings and misses. He also, besides his slider and change-up, threw two slow, 76-mph curve balls – which wasn’t in his tool box pre-Tommy John surgery.

"He's worked really hard and it's exciting to see," Gardenhire said. "He's here with us and he's going to be in the rotation. Probably as an opener-type thing as we build him up.

"He's been through an awful lot and there have been a lot of people who worked really hard to get him to this point. This is a big moment for our team and certainly a big moment for him."

Alexander also went two innings. His one mistake was a 90-mph, get-me-over fastball on a 3-1 count to Matt Davidson. Davidson sent it on a line just barely over the wall in center. It was hit so hard that center fielder JaCoby Jones didn’t have time to get to the wall and leap for it.  

That was the only hit he allowed with two strikeouts. It was also the only run of the game allowed by Tigers' pitching through 7 innings. 

The Tigers had some success last season with the lefty-righty tandem of Daniel Norris and Drew VerHagen – aka NorHagen. Although Fulmer-Alexander doesn’t easily lend itself to clever mashup, it could be the tandem that starts the home opener at Comerica Park on Monday.

That would leave another question: Who takes the fifth spot in the rotation. Norris will be building up his arm in Toledo for a while. Perhaps non-roster right-hander Dario Agrazal will get the spot in the interim.

Within a week or two, both Norris and possibly rookie Casey Mize will be in that mix.  

The Tigers did announce their starters for the season-opening series here against the Reds -- Matthew Boyd will start Friday vs. Sonny Gray; Ivan Nova will start on Saturday and Spencer Turnbull on Sunday.

Lefty on lefty crime 

Christin Stewart offered a very simple, logical explanation for why he seems more comfortable and confident against left-handed pitching these days.

“It’s just that I’ve been facing them,” he said. “The more I face them, the comfortable I get.”

Well, yeah, OK. The left-handed-hitting Stewart got just 81 plate appearance against lefties in his rookie season last year, hitting .236 with one home run and six RBIs.

Against lefties Matthew Boyd and Tyler Alexander in camp scrimmages he’s got five hits (three against Boyd) and on Tuesday against Reds lefty Nick Lodolo he ripped an RBI double. There may be more to it than just familiarity.

“I changed my approach a little bit facing lefties,” he said. “I’m sticking to what I do best, not trying to go off what they’re throwing but sticking to my strengths.”

Instead of trying to let pitches from lefties get deep in the zone and flipping them to the opposite field or up the middle, he’s in attack mode, just as he typically is against right-handed pitching.

“I’m trying to dictate the at-bat how I want to,” he said.

Stewart struggled mightily in Grapefruit League action in Lakeland, but he’s been on an offensive tear since camp opened in Detroit. The only thing missing, really, is seeing the ball leave the yard – he has one home run.

“My swing has felt really good and I’m just trying to keep that momentum going,” he said. “The home runs are going to come, I’m not too worried about it. The big thing is just making hard contact every at-bat – if I do that I’m doing my job.”

Around the horn

►The Tigers tied the game at 1-1 in the top of the eighth. Willi Castro singled and advanced to second on a wild pitch. He scored on a two-out base-hit to right field by Jorge Bonifacio.

►Relievers John Schreiber, Shao-Ching Chiang and Nick Ramirez all worked scoreless innings. 

►The Reds broke the 1-1 tie in the eighth, scratching out a run off prospect Anthony Castro, a run he contributed to with an errant pick-off throw to first and a walk. 

Twitter @cmccosky