Fulmer in red, all business from the other side
MINNEAPOLIS -- Michael Fulmer sat in the visiting clubhouse at Target Field, knowing he was in his final minutes as a Tiger but not knowing his destination, when manager A.J. Hinch tapped him on the shoulder and called him into his office.
“The first thing he said was, 'Well, you're not going far,'” Fulmer recalled.
It was a quick trip from one clubhouse to another, but after spending his entire Major League career with Detroit -- only Miguel Cabrera has a longer tenure among current Tigers -- the walk could’ve been an eternity.
One day later, when Twins manager Rocco Baldelli rang the bullpen phone for Fulmer to pitch the sixth inning of Wednesday’s 4-1 Tigers loss, it seemed only slightly less awkward. A series that began with Fulmer trying to protect a Tigers lead against the Twins in the eighth inning Monday night ended with Fulmer turning the tables.
The bullpens at Target Field are right next to each other, and his former Tigers bullpen mates -- a few of whom were expecting to be traded Tuesday as well -- could say hello from the other side of the fence.
“I kind of wish the bullpens were separated a little bit,” Fulmer said. “I think it would've been a little easier if I didn't have to switch clubhouses and play these guys, but you can't let the emotions get the best of you. It is a business, but we're all humans. I love those guys over there.”
The Tigers knew what was coming. The way Fulmer pitches this year, most teams do. A reliever who throws sliders on nearly 65 percent of his pitches doesn’t rely on unpredictability.
One slider after another, Fulmer attacked. Tigers hitters, having seen those sliders many times from a different vantage point, couldn’t do much with them. Javier Báez saw five in a row before grounding out to short.
Harold Castro, who was Fulmer’s teammate at Double-A Erie when the Tigers acquired the right-hander in 2015, laid off two sliders down and in before Fulmer surprised him with a fastball. Castro missed it, but he didn’t miss the 2-1 slider, lining it into center field for a single.
On came Eric Haase, who has caught Fulmer in more Major League games (35) than anyone except James McCann. His approach was all business -- no greeting, not even a nod.
Nobody knows better than Haase how important the high slider has been for Fulmer this year, which is why Haase told himself to lay off of it as he stepped into the box. But when Fulmer’s first-pitch slider on the upper corner coaxed a strike call from plate umpire Chris Conroy, friendship was out the door.
First-pitch high slider for strike one. Second-pitch sinker over the plate, fouled off by Haase for strike two. Then another slider on 0-2, this one higher than the last, for a called third strike.
“Obviously, I know what to look for,” Haase said. “I know his tendencies, his misses and how he likes to pitch. Just can't really make much out of that at-bat. Get a couple of pitches outside the zone that are a part of my plan to lay off of, and they go the other way, there's not much you can do.”
It was one of four strikeouts for Haase, and 14 strikeouts for the Tigers in the game. It was Fulmer’s first strikeout in another uniform.
“Just good for Michael making pitches right there,” Haase said. “I wish him success going down the road.”
Once Fulmer caught Castro taking off from first base early, he was out of the inning. His 19th hold of the season was his first of likely several with the Twins. It came against the team and coaching staff that transitioned him to the bullpen after winning AL Rookie of the Year in 2016.
“To be honest with you, those guys saved my career,” Fulmer said. “I don't know if I would've held up as a starter at the time. Obviously, the move to the bullpen was the right move, but I'll be forever grateful to those guys, those teammates, just a bunch of good guys over there.”
With that matchup done, Fulmer can acclimate to his new club. He just has to get his young son Miles to do the same.
“He was trying to say, ‘Go Twins,’ and he says, ‘Tens. Go Tens,’” Fulmer said. “It's going to be a little tough for him. He's been used his whole life to saying, ‘Go Tigers.’ But he'll learn. He'll get there.”