December 7, 2022

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Fulmer allows rare HR as pressure to win mounts

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DETROIT — The Tigers held their annual Weather Day Class Outside session for schoolkids Thursday morning, with lessons and science demonstrations about the atmosphere.

Thursday afternoon brought one final weather analogy to the diamond: When it rains, it pours.

Michael Fulmer had thrown 31 2/3 innings in 29 appearances since his last home run allowed, a Max Stassi drive last Aug. 19 in a loss to the Angels. His only runs allowed of any sort this season were a Michael Brantley triple and a Kyle Tucker bases-loaded walk last Saturday in Houston. As he worked through the top of the A’s order in the eighth inning of a tie game Thursday, he was the veteran reliever the Tigers needed with a chance to win.

Then came a two-out walk to Jed Lowrie, then a full count to Seth Brown, then a shake off of a slider sign from catcher Tucker Barnhart, then a fastball up and over the plate instead of on the outside corner, then a loft to the front row of the right-field seats. Brown’s 2-run home run was the difference in Detroit’s 5-3 loss.

The projected 374-foot drive would’ve been a home run in only 14 of the 30 Major League ballparks, according to Statcast. This was a rare case where Comerica Park was on the homer-friendly side of the list.

“We’ve got good pitching at the end of the game. We’ve got an opportunity to put some pressure on them a little bit,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “But we didn’t. Just a different way to lose.”

Yet in this nightmarish start, which now includes 10 losses in 12 games this month, it’s more than that. The Tigers, having scored one run in their previous two games, rallied back from a three-run opening inning. They scored three runs for just the second time since May 5. 

The Tigers have pitched through one low-scoring loss after another despite a young, injury-depleted rotation and a bullpen of unexpected contributors. Give the Tigers a few runs, and they’ll take their chances.

Somehow, the Tigers pitching staff has generally held. This was just their sixth loss this season when scoring three or more runs. It might be the first one where the pressure began to show.

“I think it’s a little bit of added pressure, some unwarranted pressure,” Fulmer admitted. “You don’t need to add any pressure. But sometimes, those games like that, the way we’ve been playing, you want to go out there and put a zero up. I wasn’t able to do that, but everybody else did a good job. …

“Beau [Brieske] gave up three in the first and he ended up getting through six [innings]. That’s pretty dang impressive for a rookie like that. He gave us a chance to win, get it to the back end of the bullpen where we’ve been doing pretty well. Just feel like the pressure today just wasn’t what I needed to put on myself, and I did ultimately try to be a little too perfect.”

That’s how stretches like this snowball. The Tigers know this, because they were here last year. Their 9-23 record matches their mark from last season. The 2021 Tigers hit their low point a game later, 9-24, before winning nine of their next 11. Fulmer’s transition to a shutdown reliever was a major part of last year’s turnaround.

Detroit went 68-61 after last year’s start to finish with a 77-win season, its highest win total since 2016. This year’s team went into the season looking to better that — significantly. Added veterans, promoted prospects talked about the importance of a better opening month. The pressure, Fulmer acknowledged, has been greater.

“It’s a little tougher this year than it was last year,” Fulmer said. “We’ve got the names, the team, the guys to do it. I just don’t think we’ve been playing our best ball, and I think there’s a lot going forward that we can fix, we can change. 

“Nobody’s counting this team out in this clubhouse. It’s going to be a grind every day, but we just have to take it one game at a time and try to get back to some normalcy around here and that winning culture again. We’ve got the guys to do it; I have no doubt. I believe in every single one of these guys.”

Hinch has kept the same focus throughout this year’s struggles that he did through last season, looking game by game instead of at win totals. He’s not interested in comparing slow starts. He’s just interested in starting their way out of it.

“We’re going to try to win tomorrow. That’s important,” Hinch said. “I don’t care about last year. I don’t care about comparing. I get it, everybody wants an analysis. I’ve got to figure out how to beat the Orioles tomorrow. We’re tired of losing.”

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