Tigers' Fulmer offers hard-learned lesson to aching teammates — don't push it

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Cleveland — The natural inclination for a professional athlete is to push through pain. Baseball players will tell you the only time they feel 100% healthy is on the first day of spring training. Stuff starts aching on day two and it doesn’t relent.

So, for sure Eduardo Rodriguez wanted to make his start on Wednesday against the Rays in St. Petersburg even though he started feeling sharp pains in his left side during his pre-game warmup. But OK, let’s give it shot, throw a few more pitches and try to work it out.

Victor Reyes fought going on the injured list earlier this month, figuring he could play through the quad tightness. He’s since gone on the injured list twice, once for each quad.

Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer works in the seventh inning.

Michael Fulmer has learned, the hard way, that such bravado is counterproductive. Dangerous, even.

“It sucks, but there is nothing you can do about it,” he said. “You don’t want to risk their careers and further injuries in games. You want to save them for the longevity of their career. We’re thinking past this point. If it means a month or two now, it can save a guy’s career.”

Fulmer wishes he could go back to February of 2019. He’d had major knee surgery in September of 2018 and came to camp in 2019 fired up to return to the Tigers’ rotation.

“My knee wasn’t fully healthy when I came back,” he said. “I mean, we did everything we needed to do, I jumped through all the hoops. It was as good as it was going to get going through the rehab process. But you could tell it wasn’t right.”

Fulmer struggled to regain his mechanics on the still-too-weak knee. He tried to pitch wearing a bulky knee brace. His velocity was well below where it was before the surgery. And that’s when Fulmer, in hindsight, should have pulled back and spent more time strengthening the knee.

Instead, he pressed on.

“My velocity was down and you start trying to regenerate velocity,” he said. “Ultimately, something else is going to give out that’s not used to using that much effort.”

In this case, it was Fulmer’s ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. The subsequent Tommy John surgery cost him another full season.

Lesson learned. Fulmer’s velocity is down 2 mph on both his sinker and four-seamer so far this season. But he’s not panicking.

“Yeah, that’s why I’ve had a more moderate anxiety level with the velo being down this year and last year,” he said. “I don’t want to go pressing anything else and risk hurting anything else. Everything feels good. I’m healthy. Things will come.”

Fulmer started the season with a run 10.1 scoreless innings with the velocity hovering in the 92-93 mph range. He was dominating hitters with his slider, mostly. Over his last five outings, he’s allowed six runs, though he hasn’t been hit particularly hard. Six walks and a couple of wild pitches have contributed.

“It’s always one easy fix,” he said. “One tweak mechanically, whatever it might be. But you don’t want to go pressing on trying to chase velocity some other way. Because the next thing you know, your shoulder goes or some other thing. If the velocity is not there, you just have to figure out another way to get guys out.”

Recently, Fulmer has been throwing more four-seam fastballs and, earlier this week in Tampa, even busting out the rare curve ball.

“I think that’s done a good job for me,” he said. “(Alex) Lange taught me his curve ball. I don’t throw it 86 mph like he does (laughs) but I like it so far.”

The problem for relievers, though, is figuring out when to work on mechanical tweaks or changing grips on pitches when they have to pitch as frequently as Fulmer has to.

“If I was starting still, you can take that between-starts bullpen session and throw 40 pitches and work some things out,” he said. “When you are in the bullpen and you have to be ready to pitch every day, it’s harder to work on stuff, hard to throw a 30-pitch bullpen.

“You end up working on stuff during your warm-up routine during the game.”

Sub-optimal. But it’s a better alternative than trying to force something that’s not there and end up back on rehab island.

“Yeah, that’s the biggest thing,” he said. “Just not to panic anymore. Just try to find different ways to get outs.”

Around the horn

... Tigers catcher Tucker Barnhart has been on a roll throwing out base stealers. When he nabbed Ernie Clement in the third inning Friday, it was the seventh runner he threw out in 13 attempts. He started the season 0-for-7. 

... Right-handed reliever Jacob Barnes has been tagged for two run-clusters in what has otherwise been a stellar start to the season. He gave up six runs on six pitches in two outings — back-to-back homers on two pitches to the Orioles on May 13 and then Friday, four runs on four pitches to the Guardians. In the rest of 14-plus innings, he's allowed one run and one hit.