Saturday night in Chicago, Detroit Tigers right-hander Michael Fulmer said he felt better than ever since undergoing Tommy John surgery in March 2019. His body told him he could pitch into the fifth inning, even after a three-run, 32-pitch first frame. He thought his command was superb, his pitch selection masterful.
Fulmer said he was close to his production before the elbow and knee surgeries. In 2016, he was the AL Rookie of the Year with a 3.06 ERA and 132 strikeouts in 159 innings, and he followed that up with an All-Star nod in 2017.
The results? They suggested otherwise, as he allowed five runs, nine hits and one walk in 2⅔ innings in Saturday's 14-0 loss to the Chicago White Sox.
"It's just one of those nights where you tip your cap to that offense," Fulmer said Saturday. "... At the end of the day, this game is results-oriented. Obviously, it wasn't very good tonight. I just want to win for this team. Right now, I'm just not able to do that, and that's the frustrating part."
For the second time this season, Fulmer said he's not blaming Tommy John surgery for his shortcomings. He had to sit out for nearly two years — knee surgery ended his 2018 season prematurely — but he doesn't want that to be the narrative.
Because that's not what his body is telling him.
His body is finally telling him he can be a reliable starter again, and he believes it. Yes, his fastball velocity dipped from 95 mph to 93 mph. Sure, he had to adopt new mechanics to avoid putting extra pressure on his elbow and knee. And he lost weight.
Regardless of those changes, he feels healthy. He said he wouldn't lie about that, and he showed his potential in three scoreless innings with six strikeouts Sept. 1 against the Milwaukee Brewers.
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"I've had plenty of time to refine things and get back to my normal self," Fulmer said. "The only frustrating part is the results, so until I start changing something, I'm not gonna be satisfied."
Manager Ron Gardenhire gave him a chance to finish the third inning — something he's done in four of his eight starts — by leaving him in to face Nomar Mazara with two outs and two runners on. Left-hander Daniel Norris had been warming in the bullpen, so he was ready to go.
The choice to stick with Fulmer was inspired by pitching coach Rick Anderson. It was a test after he already struck out Mazara in the first inning with an 89.4 mph slider.
"It's trying to let him get three innings," Gardenhire said. "He's gonna do this thing, and we're gonna let him do it that way. That's what we're trying to do. It's been tough in these situations."
Fulmer delivered a sinker down in the strike zone and Mazara cranked it for a two-run double, giving Chicago a 5-0 lead.
"I don't think we could have done anything different there," Fulmer said. "I thought it was a well-executed pitch. He just got the bat to it."
Yet it wasn't just Fulmer. The hit that ended Fulmer's 59-pitch outing was one of 19 hits for the White Sox. Fulmer left the game trailing 5-0; the bullpen allowed nine more runs.
That began with Norris, who relieved Fulmer and got the final out of the third, then gave up three runs in the fourth inning, followed by Rony Garcia's four runs allowed in the fifth and Nick Ramirez's two runs (one each in the sixth and seventh innings). The only reliever to toss a scoreless inning was ex-closer Joe Jimenez, mopping up in the eighth.
Although Fulmer's start didn't produce positive results on the scoreboard, he made a bold claim that he's now tasked with backing up: His body is back.
And if he's ready to make that statement, he must know results, like pitching through the fourth and fifth innings, need to follow.
"I gotta go out and throw those zeros up," Fulmer said. "Preferably in less than 20-something pitches in an inning, not try to get to full count to every batter. I thought we were on pace for that tonight. I felt really good pre-game. I felt good in that first inning."
Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here's how you can gain access to our most exclusive Detroit Tigers content.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Tigers' Michael Fulmer looking to prove he's healthy