Michael Fulmer walked into the dugout from his first inning against an opposing team in 22 months and had a question for his manager.
“Were you ready to take me out after two hitters?” Ron Gardenhire said Fulmer asked him.
The right-hander’s last big league outing lasted just two hitters. On Sept. 15, 2018 in Cleveland, Francisco Lindor and Michael Brantley greeted him with back-to-back homers. Fulmer left that game with a knee injury, underwent surgery for a torn right meniscus soon thereafter, then suffered a torn right elbow ligament the following Spring Training while working back from the knee injury.
Fulmer’s early trouble Wednesday night in Cincinnati was more mundane -- a Philip Ervin single off his first pitch, then a Josh VanMeter double -- but Gardenhire acknowledged a little concern.
“First two guys whacked him,” Gardenhire said. “I looked at [pitching coach Rick Anderson] and said, 'What are we doing?' And then after that, he was lights-out. That's how it goes.”
The initial damage, including the ambush of his first-pitch fastball, was just the jolt of adrenaline Fulmer needed to get back into game mode. His rehab process had included nothing like this. A month ago, he was throwing at a near-empty Spring Training complex in Lakeland, Fla., with not enough hitters for a simulated game.
“There were no Minor League rehab starts,” Fulmer said. “Just lots of bullpens, lots of live [batting practice] and a couple intrasquad games. So for the first real game, I thought it was fantastic.”
His two scoreless innings factored little in the Tigers’ eventual 2-1 loss to the Reds, but they mean plenty for the club’s rotation going into the season. Detroit had been looking at its options to round out the rotation with Jordan Zimmermann likely out until at least mid-September and Daniel Norris unlikely to be ready for Opening Day. Fulmer’s outing clears him to fill one of those spots, even if he can’t pitch deep into games just yet.
“He's going to be in the rotation, probably as an opener-type thing right now -- build him up as we go along,” Gardenhire said. “He's been through an awful lot, so that's our plan.”
The Tigers will start Matthew Boyd, Ivan Nova and Spencer Turnbull this weekend against the Reds. They haven’t identified their fifth starter yet, or if they might use their expanded roster to line up relievers for that spot for now. That means Fulmer could make his official return in Detroit’s home opener July 27 against the Royals.
It will be a different atmosphere than any Tigers home opener in recent memory, and not just due to the warm summer weather. The seats will be empty and the stadium quiet. But it would be a celebration for Fulmer just to get there.
“It got pretty lonely in Lakeland for the last three months,” Fulmer said. “I finally get to [go to] Detroit and get on a big league field again, just talk shop with the guys, and I can really focus on pitching, pitching with adrenaline to hitters. Everything just went better than expected. I'm super happy. I look forward to the start of the season.”
The Tigers sent Fulmer to the mound on short rest Wednesday after his live batting practice last Saturday for this opportunity. After his early trouble, he responded by retiring six batters in a row. His velocity continues to be down from his pre-surgery form, sitting around 91-94 mph, but he commanded pitches better. He spotted a 92 mph on former teammate Nick Castellanos for a timely strikeout in the first inning, and fanned Matt Davidson and Nick Senzel on 94 mph fastballs to begin the second.
“Command was a lot better in the second inning,” Fulmer said.
Fulmer’s slider had bite at 85-86 mph. He also spotted a couple of curveballs, a pitch he had thrown just a dozen times in his Major League career according to Statcast.
“I spent a lot of time working on it during rehab,” Fulmer said, “and I finally feel pretty good about it. I only threw it a couple times, but I think it just sets up a bunch of other pitches for me, having something below 80 mph and getting some guys' timing off a little bit and coming back with the fastball.”
Lefty Tyler Alexander -- who could piggyback Fulmer’s regular-season starts in the same way Drew VerHagen did for Norris down the stretch last season -- followed Fulmer on Wednesday with two innings, allowing only a Matt Davidson solo homer. Willi Castro singled and scored for the Tigers’ lone run in the eighth inning, but VanMeter put Cincinnati back in front in the bottom of the frame.