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Michael Fulmer’s sinker got him through what should have been a rough start

Wednesday wasn’t perfect, but Fulmer’s start showed the Tigers flashes of pitching maturity.

Minnesota Twins v Detroit Tigers Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

DETROIT — Michael Fulmer didn’t expect to rely on the sinker as heavily as he wound up needing to on Wednesday. But it ended up being the difference in him persevering past a rough first three innings to finish strong in his second start of the season.

Despite getting hitters into two-strike counts, Fulmer was having a hard time finishing off at-bats. He fell into three-ball counts and the Twins were able to eat away at his pitch count, forcing him to throw 40 pitches in the third alone.

Fulmer and catcher James McCann switched their approach and went to the sinker more frequently after the third, and retired every batter faced until he was pulled after six innings.

“His breaking balls and his offspeed pitches got better,” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. “He was yanking them early, kind of similar to his last start, burying them in the dirt. But he made the adjustment.”

That he had a lead to work with after the fourth did help his mindset, Fulmer said after the game. Instead of dancing around hitters, he attacked them in the zone. Because of his heightened pitch count of 74 after three, in pitching coach Rich Dubee’s eyes it also became a matter getting outs as quickly as possible. Fulmer’s response to that: “Challenge accepted.”

One season removed from winning the American League Rookie of the Year, Fulmer has every possibility of pitching 200 innings without issue, Ausmus said, provided he doesn’t overdo it. So, balancing that with days when they need him to go six or more with a higher pitch count, will play a role in how they use him in the rotation.

Fulmer’s ability to bounce back so quickly after a rough third and a rather short bottom half of the same frame was reminiscent of the highlight of his rookie season. But it also showed a growth beyond the rookie mistakes — he trusts his stuff more readily, even with pitches that he hasn’t thrown as often.

“Haven’t really worked on (the sinker) but with that many lefties in the lineup and how aggressively they were swinging the bats, it’s something that you gotta throw,” Fulmer said. “Something that starts the ball and brings it back over the plate for a strike. It was either that or a back door slider to them. Slider was OK today, (but) I didn’t really trust throwing it back door because if I pull it just a little bit it’s right into their barrel.”

After the third inning, Fulmer’s goal was just to get through five innings and give the bullpen some measure of cushion. He managed to give them an inning beyond that, and avoided Ausmus on his way back to the dugout after the fifth — successfully. While less successful after six innings and 110 pitches, Fulmer managed to retire 10 straight batters and strike out seven on the day.

Fulmer acknowledges that he needs to work on putting hitters away and not letting them spoil pitches as well as the Twins did on Wednesday. For this game, that first step was adjusting mid-game and going with the sinker, and trusting it successfully.

“I noticed it was moving quite a bit in the bullpen (before the game),” Fulmer said. “So I told Mac (McCann) when we were walking in from the bullpen, I said ‘hey if you wanna go maybe a couple front door sinkers today, just get ahead of guys or maybe try to freeze them here or there. Maybe we’ll be able to work that in.’ Because it’s not a pitch I usually throw but I knew today that it was working quite a bit.”

One of the biggest questions heading into the 2017 season was whether Fulmer could carry his success from 2016 over into the next year. He has the stuff, but talk is one thing; execution tells the true story. So far, Fulmer is managing his ups and downs well, and he’s looking less like a rookie and more like a seasoned starter.