HOUSTON -- The last time Michael Fulmer won a game, he beat a Minnesota Twins lineup that had his current teammate Robbie Grossman in it. That was three years -- and two surgeries -- ago.
The last time the Tigers scored six runs in three consecutive road games, they were making a late-season charge to get into the Wild Card race, and Fulmer was on his way to winning AL Rookie of the Year. That was five years ago.
The last time the Tigers swept a series at Minute Maid Park, Jim Leyland was the manager, J.D. Martinez was an Astros outfielder and Justin Verlander won the clincher for Detroit. That was eight years ago.
Point being, it has been a while since the Tigers have been in this position, not just sweeping a contending team in hostile territory, but downright controlling an entire road series. They haven’t had a series like this against a contending team since embarking on a rebuild four years ago. It nearly slipped from their grasp in a wild ninth inning Wednesday night, but they finished the job in Houston, culminating in a 6-4 win.
“We played well in all facets for three games,” manager A.J. Hinch said.
Like the Tigers’ recent history, Fulmer’s path to being a reliable starter again has been arduous. As the former All-Star worked through the Astros lineup for five innings, the first three of them perfect, the Tigers looked like the more comfortable, composed club, following his lead.
It was the veteran presence some saw building in Fulmer five years ago -- he just took a roundabout path to get here.
“It’s been a real long road,” Fulmer said after his first win since June 14, 2018. “I’m just so thankful for the opportunity to still be able to go out there and do what I can to help this team win. It’s truly an honor to be at this stage of my career. I’m going to keep working and keep getting better. Slowly but surely, we’re going to build up to where we want to be this year and accomplish a lot of things with this team.”
It’s an odd stage for Fulmer to be talking about, having just turned 28. But the combination of knee surgery and Tommy John surgery matured him quickly. He missed all of 2019, then was limited to three-inning starts last year in his return from elbow surgery. After opening the season in the bullpen, Wednesday marked his first game in three years with no restraints.
Fulmer succeeded by carrying his bullpen aggressiveness into his start. He not only retired Houston’s first 11 batters, he didn’t reach a three-ball count until Michael Brantley hit a 3-2 pitch through the middle for a two-out single in the fourth.
He retired the middle of the Astros lineup in order on seven pitches in the second inning after Akil Baddoo’s RBI double helped build a 3-0 lead, then delivered a six-pitch third to put his offense back in attack, where Jeimer Candelario’s two-run single fueled a three-run fourth that chased Astros starter Lance McCullers Jr. from the game.
“It almost became a little game in itself, see how little time we could spend on the defensive side of the field,” Fulmer said.
Detroit’s infield defense responded with plays behind him; four of Fulmer’s first 12 outs came on balls with an expected batting average of .450 or better, including a diving stop from first baseman Jonathan Schoop to strand two runners in the fourth and several subtly good plays from Niko Goodrum in the Gold Glove finalist’s first start at shortstop this season.
“I think the strike part of it, the attack mentality, does help the defense,” Hinch said. “And this was a fun environment for all of us. We know that they’re a good team, and I think that plays into it as well.”
The defense couldn’t help Fulmer on Jason Castro’s 447-foot drive to center field for a two-run homer in the fifth, but Fulmer finished having only allowed three hits over five innings, walking one and striking out two.
An effective, efficient Fulmer would be a boost for a Tigers rotation that combined for 18 2/3 innings and three wins this series with just three runs allowed. His return also gives Hinch options when Spencer Turnbull returns from the injured list, potentially as soon as next week’s homestand. Hinch could use a six-man rotation, as he has hinted since Spring Training, or he could move pitchers around.
For now, though, the Tigers’ first sweep in Houston since May 2-5, 2013 sends them to Oakland rolling.