Michael Fulmer looks like … the Tigers' closer?


This is why the Tigers hung onto Michael Fulmer, obviously. When teams were trying to trade for the reigning Rookie of the Year at the outset of Detroit's rebuild, this is why Al Avila said no. This is why he wanted an entire farm system in return. Because one day, Avila knew, Michael Fulmer would be the Tigers' closer.

And the Tigers would be eyeing a sweep of the Royals, and the Royals would be mounting a rally, and A.J. Hinch -- he'd be managing, of course -- would call on Fulmer to save the team again.

"We talked about how it could evolve to this, and then he goes out and has performance after performance," Hinch said Thursday. "He rescued us out of the bases loaded (against the Twins), he closed the game in Boston, he closed the game today."

No, this was never part of the script for Avila and the Tigers. But Hinch had a hunch in spring training when Fulmer kept thriving out of the bullpen. Hinch liked the way he let it rip as a reliever, the way he entered the game and pounded the zone. In a closer-by-committee bullpen, why couldn't the committee include Fulmer?

In his last four appearances, all as a reliever, Fulmer has two saves, a hold and a win. He continues to get big outs for the Tigers, none bigger than the two he got on Thursday with Detroit leading KC 4-3 in the ninth. Gregory Soto, the leader of that committee, had given up two runs and left a runner on first. Fulmer came jogging out of the bullpen to the sounds of Eric Church.

Take me up to De-troit city.

First he got Jorge Soler to pop out to second. And now Fulmer stared in at Andrew Benintendi, a country-loving slugger who rocks Luke Combs and LoCash when he strolls to the plate at home. Not here. Not in De-troit city. Slider-changeup-slider, whiff-whiff-whiff. So with all due respect, (especially to Luke Combs!) ...

Stick that in your country song.

Is Michael Fulmer the Tigers' closer? No. Not with the way Hinch uses his bullpen. ("You know how I feel about it," he said.) But if a closer is typically a team's best reliever, Fulmer is the nearest thing to it in Detroit. The Tigers' bullpen has a collective ERA of 6.32, worst in the majors. As a reliever, Fulmer's is 2.57. Against 20 hitters in five save situations, he's yielded three hits, no walks and struck out eight.

There's a different energy to Fulmer when he comes out of the bullpen. A different "intensity," says Hinch. Catcher Eric Haase could sense it on Thursday the minute Fulmer got to the mound.

"Just a ton of confidence," said Haase. "He’s been in big situations before. Different role coming out of the bullpen, but the stuff’s still the same. He’s a big-time pitcher. For him to look how he does now after everything he’s been battling the last couple years, it's fantastic. To come in and slam the door the way he did in the 9th was an awesome sight."

The sight was rather gruesome a year ago. After knee surgery in 2018 and Tommy John in 2019, Fulmer was trying to reclaim his job in the majors. But he didn't trust his body. His heater wasn't hot and his breaking balls looked broken. Fulmer got rocked. Four years removed from winning Rookie of the Year, the man looked pretty close to done.

Michael Fulmer is not done. In his new role as a reliever, Michael Fulmer might be just getting started. His fastball is fuming in the mid-90's again and his slider is snapping. He's throwing gas and throwing strikes, and let's not forget the importance of the latter in a bullpen that leads the AL in walks. Relieving requires a no-holds-barred approach, and Fulmer has embraced it.

"Air it out, one time through the order," said Hinch. "I just love his demeanor."

Fulmer, 28, is healthy now. And the internal doubts are gone. That's the biggest difference between last year and this year, said Haase. Still, Fulmer hasn't had the same success as a starter. In four games against 56 hitters, he has a 4.97 ERA, a 1.342 WHIP and almost as many walks as strikeouts. Against 56 hitters in relief, a 0.929 WHIP and 18 strikeouts to three walks. Maybe it's mental.

"In the rotation you almost look at the long game too much," said Hinch. "You start to say, 'How am I gonna get 15 outs or 18 outs?' It just feels better for all of us to say, 'Hey, I only need three outs from you. Let it go and throw 96 and we’ll get on to the next inning.'"

No, Michael Fulmer is not the Tigers' closer. If he's being honest, he'd rather be a starter. Maybe he will be again, maybe one day soon. But right now he's the Tigers' best reliever, saving a few games as he saves his career.