DETROIT -- Michael Fulmer found an answer to his earlier struggles against Cleveland, and his recent struggles overall. He did not find a win for it.The Tigers, meanwhile, have to find out if Shane Greene's recent stretch of home runs allowed is a small-sample anomaly or a trend to watch
DETROIT -- Michael Fulmer found an answer to his earlier struggles against Cleveland, and his recent struggles overall. He did not find a win for it.
The Tigers, meanwhile, have to find out if Shane Greene's recent stretch of home runs allowed is a small-sample anomaly or a trend to watch after Jason Kipnis' tiebreaking three-run homer in the top of the ninth sent Detroit to a 4-1 loss Friday night at Comerica Park.
The Tigers' fifth loss in seven games dropped them five games behind the Tribe in the American League Central as Cleveland begins to build distance in the division. Realistically, though, the Tigers' goal amidst a rebuild has been to play quality baseball and compete in games, not races.
An effective Fulmer is key to that. With back-to-back losses and nine runs allowed over 9 1/3 innings, not to mention one quality start in his previous six outings, he was searching for his better form. The starting point for Fulmer has always been a quality fastball down in the strike zone to set up his secondary arsenal and weak contact. Fulmer has worked on his delivery with pitching coach Chris Bosio, trying to find his old mechanics in order to better command the fastball. In the process, he found old life on it, too.
Friday was one start, but it was his best outing since his season debut. Just as important, it came against a team that had thrashed him in their last meeting by jumping his fastball.
"I think all the hard work's kind of paying off," Fulmer said.
The last time Fulmer faced the Indians, they roughed him up for nine runs (six earned) on eight hits over three innings on April 12 in Cleveland. He threw 34 fastballs with no swing-and-misses that night, and the average exit velocity was 100 mph on the fastballs they put in play, according to Statcast™. The damage was dramatic enough to raise the question whether he was tipping his pitches.
After a second look on video, he wasn't telegraphing so much as he wasn't executing them. Given a rematch, he went back at the fastball and dared Tribe hitters to belt it again. Aside from a Yonder Alonso RBI double off a 2-0 pitch in the fourth, they didn't.
Fulmer threw four- or two-seam fastballs on 71 of his 108 pitches, averaging just under 97 mph, according to Statcast™. The Indians swung and missed on six. The ones they hit had an exit velocity averaging just 85 mph.
"He commanded it tonight, and he had power behind it," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "I mean, we've seen him like that before. He's got pretty special stuff."
Just as important, it carried him into a third trip through the order, a stretch that has doomed him at several points this season. Instead of mixing pitches for variety's sake, he stuck with what worked and continued, from a 99-mph fastball that Francisco Lindor grounded out to second for the first out of the sixth inning, to a 98-mph fastball on Fulmer's 107th pitch of the night, setting up a slider for a strikeout to complete the seventh.
"If it ain't broke, don't fix it," catcher James McCann said. "We stuck with our game plan, and tonight, we didn't have to make an adjustment."
What the Tigers couldn't find was any solution for Trevor Bauer, who quieted Detroit's offense for the third time this year. Bauer fanned 12 hitters over eight innings, shutting down the Tigers' offense after back-to-back doubles from Leonys Martin and Nicholas Castellanos opened the scoring in the first.
Bauer (5-4) has allowed three earned runs in 23 innings against Detroit this year after going 0-2 with 13.00 ERA in two starts last year.
"We've seen that guy do that to us a few times," Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said. "He's pretty good. He can change speeds, move the ball around."
Joe Jimenez retired the side in order in the eighth to bring on Greene (2-3), who fell behind hitters and eventually paid with a two-out rally after a one-out walk to Jose Ramirez. Alonso worked a full count against Greene before lining a hard-hit gapper to bring up Kipnis, who pounced on a slider over the plate and sent it an estimated 410 feet, per Statcast™, to right-center field for his fourth home run of the year.
"He made a bad pitch, and the guy hit it out," Gardenhire said.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Ramirez nearly makes baserunning gaffe: Alonso's ninth-inning hit sent Ramirez speeding around third like he might try for home. He stopped down the line but slipped doing so, creating a potential opportunity to throw him out at third. Dixon Machado, who took the relay from the outfield, threw immediately home, trying to get the ball in as quickly as possible. Ramirez scrambled back to the bag, and McCann held the ball as Alonso took second.
"The worst that should happen there is [runners at] first and third," Gardenhire said. "You run the ball in, stop the guy, maybe make a play at third base. That's a situation where they gave us a chance to get an out, and we didn't take advantage of it."
Said McCann: "The only way to go about it is to get the ball in as soon as you can. By the time I got the ball, I potentially could've thrown to second, but then you risk an overthrow or a bounce. In that moment, I thought the best play was to eat it and find a way to get the next guy in the lineup."
Kipnis' homer was the sixth off Greene in 30 1/3 innings this year, matching Greene's total over 67 2/3 innings last season. With 34 strikeouts, he's still deceiving hitters, but he's giving up more solid contact. One out of every five hits against him this year has left the yard.
Mike Fiers (5-3, 4.33 ERA) will try to beat Cleveland for the second time this season as the series continues Saturday with a 4:10 p.m. ET start at Comerica Park. Fiers is 3-1 with a 2.22 ERA in five career meetings with the Indians, including six innings of one-run ball on May 14 in Detroit. Mike Clevinger (4-2, 3.36) takes a 4-1 career record and 2.28 ERA against the Tigers into his start for Cleveland.
Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and listen to his podcast.