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'I'm just ecstatic:' Fulmer back in Tigers' rotation after arduous rehab journey

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Cincinnati – Hard to imagine what all was going through Michael Fulmer’s mind during his long walk from the bullpen in right field to the Tigers’ dugout on the third base side of Great American Ballpark on Wednesday.

It had been 22 months since he last started a baseball game against another Major League baseball team. Twenty-two months spent rehabbing from his first major knee surgery, then Tommy John surgery. Twenty-two months of mostly doing physical therapy, strength and conditioning, throwing bullpens and live bullpens against, for the most part, minor-league hitters all by himself in Lakeland, Fla., while his teammates were back in Detroit scuffling through a 114-loss season.

And now here he was, all lathered up from his bullpen session, ready to attack the Cincinnati Reds in the final exhibition tune-up before the season-opener Friday. And who does he see leaning on the railing in the Reds’ dugout — old friend Nick Castellanos.

Michael Fulmer

“I told him to take it easy on me,” Fulmer joked. “I said it’s my first real game back. He said he remembered how nasty my stuff was so I shouldn’t have a problem. I said, OK.”

A few minutes later, the two would meet again. In the bottom of the first inning. The first two hitters Fulmer faced were standing on second and third — a single and a double.

“I looked at Andy (pitching coach Rick Anderson) and I said, ‘What are we doing?’” manager Ron Gardenhire said.

Anderson told him not to panic.

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Fulmer, who to that point had thrown five straight 92-mph fastballs, finally broke out his slider and he got former Tiger Eugenio Suarez to pop out to second base. That brought Castellanos to the plate and Fulmer gave him a tangible reminder of the nasty stuff he remembered from his rookie of the year season in 2016.

He got Castellanos to swing early and miss on two sliders. Then, after another slider missed the strike zone, he came back with a tailing, 92-mph fastball that locked up Castellanos — called strike three. One pitch later Fulmer was out of the inning unscathed.

“All I could really ask for was to get the adrenaline going against another team and be healthy coming off of it,” Fulmer said. “I felt great out there. The first two hitters I was a little jittery. But everything felt good in the second inning, a lot more crisp.

“When I calmed down a little bit, my pitches were working better. It just felt good to be back out there.”

Fulmer struck out the side in his second and last inning of the night, blowing fastballs by Matt Davidson, Nick Senzel and Curt Casali. He threw 31 pitches and eight of the 16 strikes were swing and misses.

As he sat in the dugout after the outing it finally started to sink in. He’s back. Twenty-two months and two surgeries later, he is back in the Tigers rotation — albeit for now as a two- or three-inning opener. But he’s done it. He's climbed that rehab mountain and planted his flag.

“It’s been a long road,” he said. “I’m just ecstatic to be back. All the hard work that I put in, all the hard work the organization put in — the training staff, the strength and conditioning staff, the physical therapists — I can’t thank everybody enough.

“It just feels good to be 100% again and I am anxious to get the season going. To be feeling good on top of that is just icing on the cake.”

He showed off a new toy Wednesday, too. With an 0-1 count on Senzel, Fulmer flipped a 78-mph curveball that dropped in for a strike. He hadn’t thrown that since 2017, and he only threw a dozen of them total.

“I spent a lot of time working on that during rehab,” he said. “I finally feel good about it. It just sets up a bunch of other pitches for me. Having something below 80 mph gets guys timing off a little bit.”

His slider was biting, as it did before the surgeries. His four-seam fastball sat at 93 mph and hit 94. Before the surgeries, his average fastball was 96 mph. So, that’s not come all the way back yet. And, facing a right-handed dominant lineup, he only threw one change-up.

But, considering he’s worked his way back without the benefit of any minor-league rehab starts, just live bullpens and two intrasquad starts — where he’s at is remarkable.

“I’m ahead of where I’d thought I’d feel and be as far as pitchability and the feel of my pitches,” he said. “My fastball command is better than I expected. For just the first game for me against another team, I thought it went fantastic.”

It was a very uplifting way for the Tigers to head into the 60-game season, especially with two members of the rotation on the injured list — Jordan Zimmermann and Daniel Norris.

“He was one of the top pitchers in this organization, and in baseball, for a good while — headed that way, for sure,” Gardenhire said. “To go through what’s he’s done and fight back this long, he’s never given up. He’s always had confidence in himself to get well.

“The trainers and the doctors and all the people who have helped take care of him — there’s a lot of people involved — and got him to this point, this is a big moment for our team and it’s a big moment for him. It’s a good thing to see this kid bounce back like this.”

And, barring any unforeseen setbacks, Fulmer could be on the mound at Comerica Park on Monday for the home opener against the Kansas City Royals.