PITTSBURGH -- It wasn't the first gem Michael Fulmer has thrown this season -- even against the Pirates -- but the right-hander reached a new gear on Thursday. With a season-high nine strikeouts and career-best 24 swinging strikes, Fulmer was as close to unhittable as he has been all season.
But just like in his first start of the year -- also against the Pirates -- Fulmer came away with nothing to show for his efforts. The Tigers couldn't provide any run support for him in a pitching duel against Ivan Nova, as they lost, 1-0, at PNC Park on Corey Dickerson's ninth-inning walk-off home run.
"We had a great pitcher on both sides going at each other," Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said. "And that was a pitching game. You knew it was going to come down to something exactly like what happened. … It was a great baseball game, and it was frustrating on our side because we had a lot of opportunities to score runs."
Fulmer was dominant from the beginning, as he matched his previous season high of four strikeouts through the first two frames. Through his first turn in the order, he had more swinging strikes (14) than he had in any of his previous four starts (9).
The most noticeable difference came from his four- and two-seam fastballs, which had been problematic in earlier starts. Whereas he only picked up five total swings and misses on his fastballs through four starts, Fulmer got 11 whiffs on the heater Thursday. He was especially happy with how he let the two pitches play off each other, looking for to miss bats with the four-seamer and garnering ground balls with the two-seamer.
"When we can command the ball down in the zone, it opens up [the top of] the zone," Fulmer said. "If you live up in the zone and you try to climb the ladder with two strikes or something, they've seen it. But when you change their eye level up and down constantly, then they're more likely to not be on the four-seam up in the zone. I think that was the biggest thing."
Just like in his first start of the season, Fulmer held the Pirates to four hits. Although he only lasted six innings, he was able to keep runners off the board by never letting multiple hitters reach base at the same time.
Fulmer's slider became a key weapon for him, as he said the pitch looked its best all season. He changed his slider in Spring Training to be slower and sharper, and while he still has work to do on the pitch, the Pirates were 0-for-6 with four strikeouts against it on Thursday.
"I left a couple that were more on the plate that they either swung through or took [for a strike], but I'd like it more as kind of a quality strike down and away," Fulmer said. "You can't really be perfect, so I'll take it and kind work of on it in my next bullpen session, and go from there."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Ninth-inning rally cut short: The Tigers' best scoring chance came in the ninth inning against Pirates closer Felipe Vazquez, whom they roughed up on Opening Day for four runs. Jose Cabrera and Nicholas Castellanos singled to lead off the inning, and Niko Goodrum worked a walk, but the club's good fortune ran out.
James McCann stung a ball at 103.9 mph, but it went right to third baseman Colin Moran, who threw home for the forceout. Pinch-hitter Victor Martinez popped out to first base, and then Jose Iglesias rocketed a ball at 105.8 mph -- but it was easily handled by shortstop Sean Rodriguez to end the inning.
"It's one of those days," McCann said. "Yesterday I put the barrel on the ball, and it found a hole. Today I put the barrel on the ball, and it found the glove. That's part of the game. That's part of the ups and downs that you go through. That's why you stay even-keeled and keep the same demeanor. You can't let that stuff affect you."
Pirates keep Martin stranded:Leonys Martin twice came 90 feet away from scoring, but Nova was able to navigate through trouble both times with a bevy of ground balls. After Martin's leadoff triple in the first, Nova coaxed three groundouts to the left side that kept him at bay.
Later on in the sixth inning, Martin reached on an error by Nova with one out and advanced to third on Dixon Machado's single. Cabrera then scorched a ball up the middle at 98.7 mph -- at a 54 percent hit probability -- but Nova deflected it off his glove to slow it down, and second baseman Adam Frazier easily turn a double play to end the inning.
"Those guys were really trying," Gardenhire said. "How many balls did we hit right on the button that they made plays on? Over and over. We hit some balls on the screws, and they were right there -- it was at them. That's the way the game is. Sometimes you just fall into that kind of luck."
HE SAID IT
"At some point, I want to give up a ball that isn't a homer. I'm not even really giving up a lot of hits. It's just every one, it seems lately, that I do give up leaves the ballpark, unfortunately. … I feel good about what I'm doing, I'm just not being rewarded right now." -- Alex Wilson, on giving up Dickerson's walk-off home run
MITEL REPLAY OF THE DAY
Dickerson's towering walk-off home run was almost for naught when the Tigers used a challenge to see if the fan who caught the ball committed interference by reaching over the right-field wall. However, after a quick review, the replay official could not definitively determine that the ball would have remained in play had no contact with the spectator occurred, so the call stood, and the Pirates won.
The Tigers continue their six-game road trip as they head to Baltimore on Friday. Right-hander Mike Fiers will get the nod at 7:05 p.m. ET. He has displayed excellent control with just one walk in each of his last three starts, but the veteran did not record a strikeout in his most recent start. Chris Tillman gets the start for Baltimore and is still searching for his first win of the season.