The 23-year-old flamethrower, dominant for the second consecutive start, has shown he can handle the pressure and expectations befitting a major league pitcher. Any suggestion otherwise was rendered moot by his 7&ffrac23; scoreless-inning performance in the Tigers' 4-1 win over the Oakland Athletics.
Gene Lamont, who has assumed managerial duties the past two games during Brad Ausmus’ absence for a family matter, laughed when asked if Fulmer has proven he belongs in the big leagues.
“Well, he’s going to pitch in five days,” he said.
Not usually the conduit to the media, Lamont didn’t seem entirely at ease with divulging the team’s long-term plans, but he made it quite clear that the Tigers have no intention of plucking Fulmer out of the rotation. Can't blame them. In his previous start on May 21, Fulmer struck out 11 and gave up one run in seven innings.
“Let’s be realistic, we’re going to keep Fulmer,” Lamont said. “Fulmer’s not going I shouldn’t speak of that’s my feeling. I don’t think Fulmer will -- I don’t think [general manager Al Avila] or Brad wants you guys on their ass about that.”
Given the club’s need for strong starting pitching outside of Justin Verlander and Jordan Zimmermann ( the latter of which is currently injured and hoping to avoid the disabled list), there’s no reason the Tigers should not continue to cultivate Fulmer’s talent and moxie at this level. Mike Pelfrey has made strides in recent starts, but he’s still reeling from an 0-4 record and a 5.55 ERA. Anibal Sanchez continues to be tormented by the sixth inning or the third time through an opponent's lineup, whichever comes first.
Even once Shane Greene (finger) returns from the disabled list, he won’t be usurping Fulmer’s spot. Prior to Friday’s game, Lamont revealed that the Tigers were still mulling whether to use Greene in the rotation or the bullpen.
Most importantly, Fulmer continues to get only better with each start, as was evident in Friday’s outing in which he allowed just two hits. According to research by ESPN Stats & Information, Fulmer became the first Tigers rookie to throw 7⅔ scoreless innings since Verlander in 2006.
“We knew that he had the mentality,” veteran second baseman Ian Kinsler said. "The way he’s grown since then has been really -- remarkable.”
Kinsler, who went 3-for-5 and was robbed of at least another extra-base hit when Billy Burns made a diving snag of his deep ball to center, said the way Fulmer is mixing his pitches compared to his first big league start shows just how far he has come.
When the Tigers saw him then, and in spring training, he was heavily reliant on his fastball-slider combination. Now, he’s utilizing his changeup much more and it’s making a marked difference.
“The last two starts, he’s worked in the changeup at a high percentage and it’s really, really helped him. It’s really extended his innings and his pitch count has gone down,” Kinsler said. “It’s a big pitch for him.”
The biggest difference Fulmer has noticed since he made his first career start back on April 29?
“I feel so much more comfortable. I just trust everything,” Fulmer said. “It feels good to get big league hitters out, any way I can. And the defense is doing great. [Catchers James McCann and Jarrod Saltalamacchia] are helping me learn so much, so just credit to everybody else for helping me along with their advice and I’m hoping to just keep moving forward.”
Fulmer, who was acquired in last year’s trade that sent star center fielder Yoenis Cespedes to the New York Mets, came into the organization with top billing. He remains the club’s top-ranked prospect and has already prompted the team to discuss how to monitor and manage his innings for the future.
Fulmer came highly touted -- as Lamont said, “We paid dearly for him” -- and rightfully so, but even the Tigers seem a bit surprised at how quickly he has ascended.
“We thought maybe he’d be in Triple-A all year,” Lamont said. “And he’s in the big leagues right now.”
Considering how Fulmer has pitched of late, that is where he is likely to remain.