By: Will Burchfield
Brad Ausmus expected the boo birds.
The moment he stepped out of the dugout to lift Michael Fulmer from the game, he knew they were coming.
They followed him all the way to the mound, hovered during his meeting with Fulmer and then crescendoed when he slapped the pitcher on the backside and sent him to the showers, one out shy of a complete game.
The Tigers were ahead 7-3 at the time, but Fulmer was tiring, the Royals were rallying and closer Justin Wilson was ready in the bullpen.
“I just felt like the momentum was shifting and I didn’t really wanna bring it down to the wire where all of a sudden the tying run’s at the plate for Justin Wilson,” said Ausmus. “Trust me, I wanna see Michael Fulmer go nine innings too, but we also don’t wanna give the other team any hope.”
Wilson came in and struck out the first batter he faced to nail down the win.
Fulmer had entered the ninth inning with a shutout in his grasp. He promptly retired the first two hitters, before allowing three consecutive hits. He had a chance to secure the complete game when he induced a line drive to left field by Eric Hosmer, but Justin Upton lost the ball in the lights and dropped it.
By that point, Fulmer was at 104 pitches and Ausmus had to consider the best interests of the team.
“He loses the shutout — okay, no big deal. You still wanna see him get the complete game. But at some point I felt like I had to make a decision because the most important thing is winning. Could Michael have gotten the next out? Maybe — probably, actually. But like I said, I felt like the tide had turned a little bit and I wanted to stop the momentum in its tracks,” Ausmus said.
When Ausmus reached the mound, Fulmer didn’t fight him. He didn’t argue, he didn’t plead to stay in the game.
“He actually apologized to me,” said Ausmus.
“I said, ‘Sorry, Skip,” Fulmer recalled with a smile.
“And I just said, ‘There’s no reason for you to apologize, you were great. So don’t worry about it,” said Ausmus.
Fulmer, ever the good teammate, wanted to protect the bullpen. He wanted to give every reliever a day off. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be.
“I don’t blame him for the move there,” said Fulmer. “I think they batted around the last inning, obviously that can’t happen no matter how many pitches I’m at.”
The Royals had sent six batters to the plate in the ninth when Ausmus pulled Fulmer — not nine. But his false recollection speaks to the height of his own standards. A few mistakes feels like several.
It was a breezy afternoon for Fulmer most of the way. He allowed four baserunners and threw just 85 pitches over the first eight innings. It was calm, cool dominance on a hot and humid day in Detroit.
“He really kept his pitch count low up until the last inning, kind of Greg Maddux-esque in that regard,” said Ausmus. “Quick outs, seven punch-outs, he was outstanding.”
After the burly righty retired the first two batters in the ninth, the fans came to their feet and and began cheering. When he jumped ahead of the third batter 1-2, one strike away from the second shutout of his career, the decibel level grew, 33,681 spectators urging him across the finish line.
“I was definitely trying to get that last out for them as well, hearing how loud they were,” said Fulmer. “Unfortunately it didn’t happen.”
And then there went Ausmus, sauntering out to the mound. And there went the ballpark fervor, replaced now by frustration.
Ausmus said afterword he understood the boos. Fulmer simply laughed, caught between loyalties: his manager or the fans?
“It’s passion,” he decided. “Obviously they’re rooting for us on the field, and I would say it’s a big step to get a complete game there. But like I said, I don’t blame him for the move at all. J-Willy is one of our best relievers and he came in and slammed the door.
“I gave up six baserunners in a row, my stuff wasn’t electric as it had been all day. Get a fresh guy in there and make sure we get the victory more than anything else.”
Once again, Fulmer overestimated his own misdoing. He allowed four straight baserunners, not six. When dominance is your baseline, anything less feels like disaster.
“He’s unique. You don’t see many people come around like him and have instant success,” said Ausmus. “Sometimes you get a rookie flash in the pan until the league catches up with them, but he’s kind of maintained. And unfortunately for him, we’re kind of expecting it now. The expectation bar has been set high now…and he’s done that because of his performance.”
There’s an equanimity to Fulmer when he’s on the mound. It’s an extension of his mild-mannered personality off it. He brushes things off like lint on his shirt. He remains cognizant of the bigger picture. Heck, in a situation where he could have taken issue with his manager, where he could have reasonably challenged Ausmus’ judgment, the 24-year-old apologized.
“I think he’s mildly upset that he didn’t finish it, but shoot, he did an outstanding job — and we needed it,” said Ausmus. “We need to win series and we needed this series in the division, so he was the story today. I wish it was a complete game shutout, but he was still outstanding.”
As Fulmer said, “We got the ‘W.’ That’s all that matters.”