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Managing Michael Fulmer's innings is a balancing act for the Tigers

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There is some risk in keeping Fulmer in the rotation, but the Tigers don’t plan on shutting him down.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Boston Red Sox Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

DETROIT — Were the Tigers not in the playoff hunt, Michael Fulmer’s innings would be managed differently. But the team doesn’t have the luxury of shutting him down, so they’ve come up with a middle ground of skipping starts and pushing him back a day here or there — regardless of whether Fulmer likes it or not.

“I still think, even if his innings per se are up more than 20 or whatever the percentage is — 20-25 percent — we’ve pitched him on long rest a lot, which I think the recovery is better every single time,” manager Brad Ausmus said on Thursday.

With two weeks remaining in the regular season, Fulmer will get three more starts spread out with extra rest mixed in. He could have started on Thursday, but he was pushed back a day partially to rest him, and also to have him face the Indians on Friday.

Fulmer has long surpassed his previous career high (124 23 between three minor league levels in 2015) of innings pitched — he’s at 159 innings combined between Detroit and Triple-A. He’s blown past that 20 percentage estimate and has given up five home runs in his last four starts.

There are signs of fatigue here and there, which is not surprising for a rookie pitcher who’s been asked to be a key part of the starting rotation. By all accounts, he’s been the No. 2 starter for the majority of the season. That said, he’s at the point where the Tigers need to be careful with him as they approach the end of the year — and if they make the playoffs, they’ll need to save him for that, too.

“Yeah, I know he’s said he likes to get in a rhythm, but I don’t care,” Ausmus said. “Simple as that. I’ve talked to him about it. I don’t care. We’re doing it for a reason. I don’t know if that reason will work or it’s right (there’s no guarantee), but we’re trying to protect him. I’ve talked to him a couple times. I talked to him (about it) in Kansas City about that particular thing.”

After he put up five scoreless starts and two one-run starts, Fulmer had a stretch of six games where he allowed 15 runs (13 earned) in 40 13 innings, which isn’t awful by any stretch — that’s good enough for a 2.90 ERA. Then, he went out and threw the first shutout of his career, allowing just four hits. The next start wasn’t so great, as he gave up six runs and two homers, his worst start of the season.

The three starts that followed eked three, three, and two runs apiece — also not bad. And over those five games, he has a 3.86 ERA with 23 strikeouts. Since August, though, Fulmer’s strikeouts are down a full tick. His season K/9 is 7.33, and from the time he was called up until the start of August it was at 7.79 K/9 (8.34 if you include his 15 13 innings in Toledo). Since Aug. 3, he has a 6.44 K/9.

It’s been a balancing act for Fulmer to adjust to the skipped starts and extra rest. Because he wants to be in the rotation on regular rest, even with him being out of sync at times, Ausmus has had to discuss the importance of stretching him out throughout the season to preserve his arm — even though Fulmer is not a fan.

“He’d rather have a regular pitching schedule, and I said I get it,” Ausmus said. “But we’re trying to find a way to get you through the whole season, as opposed to shutting you down. So, pick your poison. Do you wanna be on every five days and we shut you down mid-September, or do you wanna do it this way and pitch through the rest of the season.”

With that said, Fulmer hasn’t been mad or upset about it. During games Ausmus said Fulmer’s not one to be affected by the game or the score, and the same can be said between starts. But with their rookie starter in that grey area for risk, the team can no longer turn him loose. The Tigers have enough issues with Anibal Sanchez, and with Mike Pelfrey’s start looming questionable, the last thing they need is for Fulmer to fall apart.

But even with his decreased starts and off days, his collective ERA hasn’t gone above 3.00 since he put up his third scoreless start of the year. And if that’s not enough, he’s dropped his walk rate from 2.78 BB/9 (2.81 with Toledo) to 1.17 BB/9 since August. Kid gloves or not, Fulmer has managed to remain dominant, and he’s adjusted well despite the lower strikeouts.

“I just think he feels like he’s being handled with kid gloves and he doesn’t wanna be handled with kid gloves. I said you get through this year and then next year you don’t have to worry about it. You’ll be able to go 200 innings and the kid gloves that will be off.”