Fulmer had fans thinking they might be watching a perfect-game bid as he churned through the Cardinals' batting order for the first five innings on Sunday. He also had his teammates believing that they could pull off a series sweep of St. Louis and play spoiler in the National League postseason race. Then those hopes scurried away faster than the squirrel that crossed the Comerica Park field before a five-run Cards rally in a 5-2 Tigers loss.
It was a cruel fate for Fulmer (3-11) after retiring his first 15 batters. It was also arguably a snapshot of his season. His pitches have looked dominant at times, including the 98-mph fastballs he threw Sunday, and ordinary at others. His results have been consistent.
"He's a winner and wants to win," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "But all he can do is throw the ball. He gave us a chance."
Not only is Fulmer winless in his past nine starts since defeating the Twins on June 14, the Tigers haven't won any of those nine starts, either. They've scored 18 runs in those nine games and no more than three runs in any of them.
"It's tough," Fulmer said. "My job is to go get the team wins, and I haven't been able to do that at all this year. … I think the good news is I felt great. It's the best I've felt in September in the last two years."
Fulmer didn't pitch last September after surgery to reposition the ulnar nerve in his right elbow. He was wearing down in September 2016, his rookie season, as the innings piled up. Even if the results are missing down the stretch this year, the velocity is there.
Following the lead of Daniel Norris and Matthew Boyd this series, Fulmer attacked Cardinals hitters with 97- and 98-mph fastballs and a slider that kept them off-balance. Jim Adduci's lunging grab to the right of first base on Matt Carpenter's fourth-inning liner was the only ball hit off Fulmer in the first five innings with better than a 40-percent hit probability, according to Statcast™.
Fulmer didn't face a three-ball count until he walked back-to-back hitters leading off the sixth. Carson Kelly's ensuing single broke up the no-hitter, but a caught-stealing and two flyouts ended the Cardinals' threat.
Fulmer took the mound for the seventh with a scoreless duel, but he had to wait for his first pitch until a squirrel made its way from third base across the infield into the first-base coaching box.
"It was the squirrel's fault," Fulmer joked. "As soon as I struck out Adams right after the squirrel, I thought, 'Hey, we're going to shut them out this inning and we're going to score a few runs and we're going to win the ballgame.'"
It worked instead for the Cardinals, who put their next six batters on base. Marcell Ozuna and Paul DeJong hit back-to-back grounders to the left side, where the squirrel had started its trek. Jeimer Candelario struggled with both of them, his glove hitting the third-base bag on one. Kolten Wong hit an 0-2 pitch through the same left side for an RBI single.
None of the Cardinals' four singles off Fulmer that inning had a hit probability over 50 percent, according to Statcast™.
The Tigers brought home two runs in the seventh inning on a Mikie Mahtook groundout and a Ronny Rodriguez double.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Fulmer seemingly had picked up a badly needed second out in the seventh inning when Yairo Munoz hit a fly ball to right. But what looked like a sacrifice fly became an error when right fielder Niko Goodrum, filling in with Nicholas Castellanos at designated hitter, dropped the ball for an error. Munoz ended up at second base, eventually scoring on a Carpenter sacrifice fly for the first of two unearned runs.
"Anytime you drop a ball, it seems to turn into a big inning," Gardenhire said. "Quite a few things went wrong, and we couldn't stop it."
SOUND SMART Tigers rookie second baseman Dawel Lugo, who had nine walks in 123 games this season for Triple-A Toledo, has three walks in 10 games for Detroit, including two walks on Sunday. He drew three walks over his final 51 games with the Mud Hens.
STEWART DEBUTS Tigers No. 6 prospect Christin Stewart made his big league debut on Sunday, pinch-hitting for Rodriguez with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning. He faced Carlos Martinez and popped out to end the game.
"Oh, man, just a huge adrenaline rush," Stewart said. "When they told me, 'You might be going in to pinch-hit,' just a lot of emotions. It was a blast. I just loved it."
UP NEXT Justin Verlander (14-9, 2.73 ERA) returns to Comerica Park for the first time since his trade to Houston last summer. He'll face his old team on Monday as the Tigers open a three-game series against the Astros with a 6:10 p.m. ET game. Former Astros pitcher Francisco Liriano (4-9, 4.90 ERA) starts for Detroit, and Stewart is likely to be in the starting lineup.