LAKELAND, Fla. -- The brace was off Michael Fulmer's right knee as he threw off one of the back mounds at Tigertown with the sun rising over nearby Lake Parker in Lakeland, Fla., on Friday morning. The image and backdrop, as the 2016 American League Rookie of the Year Award winner worked his way back from offseason right knee surgery, would’ve been a fittingly optimism symbol if it were earlier in camp.
The fact that the early-morning session took place on the Ides of March, 13 days before the Tigers open their regular season and one day after they announced Fulmer is stepping back from game action to work on his lower-body mechanics, turns that optimism into worry.
The good news is that Fulmer isn’t shut down from throwing. The only injury concern he has at this point is what might happen if he continued to try pitching in games. The decision to step back from games is essentially meant to protect Fulmer from himself.
“I think it's better for us to work on it in bullpens than go out in a game and try to overthrow and try to see my velocity back,” Fulmer said. “If something doesn't feel like it's pushing off the way it should, you try to make up for it somewhere else. So for precautionary reasons, especially with me having one or two starts left, I don’t want to go out there and blow something else out because of this not being as explosive as I could be.”
The explosiveness is what Fulmer is trying to regain in his legs. He referenced it as the next step after his last start last Saturday, when his fastball sat in the 89-91 mph range. He did not mention stepping back from games to get there, but a meeting with coaches and medical staff led to the decision.
“I feel like, especially my last start, I was trying to overthrow a little more,” Fulmer said. “And that's what I told [manager Ron Gardenhire] and our trainers: I feel like I'm using all arm out there. Even though my stuff was still pretty good from my perspective, obviously the velocity's just not there. It hasn't gone away. It's in there somewhere. We just have to find a way to get back to what we're looking for.”
That “way” involves shedding the knee brace Fulmer was wearing in all his throwing, whether it was side work or games. Though wearing it to pitch was supposedly optional, Fulmer used it all the time, and was preparing to use it in the regular season. However, Fulmer said Friday the brace was a little too restrictive.
Instead, Fulmer threw Friday with a compression sleeve on his knee.
“It felt great,” he said. “I felt a lot more range of motion, being able to kind of sink down with my legs and actually push off going toward home plate.”
No velocity numbers were available, and Fulmer doesn’t want to know for now. He wants to get the leg push back in his delivery before he worries about velocity again. Then he’ll start thinking about games.
“I don't know how long this is going to take,” Fulmer said, “but I'm going to make sure I feel good about this before going into game action.”
If that means Fulmer’s season is delayed, he’ll deal with it. Better to miss a turn or two than to suffer another injury trying to overthrow in response to his knee.
“Obviously the goal is to be ready for the start of the season,” he said. “I don't know. I can't tell you. It all depends on how these next couple bullpens go, whatever it may be. But I guarantee you as soon as I feel like I'm ready, then I'll get back out there.”
• Gardenhire did not make the trip with the team to Port Charlotte, Fla., for Friday’s game against the Rays. He stayed back in Lakeland to be examined for a pinched nerve in his neck. Bench coach Steve Liddle managed the team for Friday’s game in his place.
• Like Fulmer, reliever Drew VerHagen also threw a bullpen session Friday morning and said he felt good. VerHagen, sidelined since March 7 with tightness and tingling in his arm, said the inflammation has gone away. He’ll likely throw another bullpen session before being cleared to pitch in games again, possibly next week.
• Franklin Perez, ranked third among Tigers prospects and 78th overall on MLB Pipeline's Top 100 prospects list, tossed two strong innings in a Minor League game on Friday on the back fields at Tigertown. The 21-year-old began Spring Training in Major League camp and pitched a scoreless inning in Grapefruit League play last month, but was slowed by spasms in his right trapezius muscle.