By: Will Burchfield
Michael Fulmer admits it’s worrisome, the nerve trouble in his right elbow and the numbness in his fingers.
“Anything elbow-related or hand-related is scary,” he said.
And he admits there’s some concern that his symptoms could morph into a long-term issue.
“A little bit, yeah,” he said.
Fulmer’s right elbow ulnar neuritis, which landed him on the 10-day DL last week, is serious enough that he and the Tigers have considered surgery.
“We’ve talked about it,” Fulmer said. “And I’ve called around a few guys and asked them if they’ve ever had it done.”
The procedure would be relatively minor, a relocation of the nerve in his right elbow with a recovery time of about three months.
“I know Anibal (Sanchez) has had it done. He said he was out for three months and then he was back pitching and he’s never felt it again. But obviously with me, the risk-reward anytime you go under the knife, I’d rather not have to,” Fulmer said.
The right-hander met with the Tigers’ team doctor and that of the Yankees after he felt tingling and numbness in his pinky and ring fingers during his last start, Aug. 1 in New York. It’s an issue he’s dealt with since 2014, but the symptoms were especially pronounced this time around.
Both team doctors recommended the same thing: “Just try to take a week off from throwing and see where it goes from there,” said Fulmer.
To be sure, Fulmer and the Tigers consulted Dr. James Andrews shortly thereafter. Upon studying Fulmer’s X-rays, Dr. Andrews reached the same conclusion.
“All three doctors said that surgery was last, last resort, especially if I can continue pitching with it,” Fulmer said. “Hopefully it just doesn’t come back. That’s the best-case scenario right now.”
Fulmer threw on Wednesday for the first time since being shut down, and said he felt fine.
“No problems, no pain, no numbness. Nothing,” he said. “It kind of calmed down, and I’m happy about that.”
He was also relieved that he never lost velocity in his last start, despite the troubling symptoms.
“My stuff was still there, velocity was still there. I remember when I had problems back in 2014 — I just had a couple bone spurs and a bone chip — my velo was way down and it was very painful to throw. That’s not the case right now,” said Fulmer.
So, even if the symptoms re-arise, Fulmer is confident he can pitch through them. He’s been pitching through them for almost three years.
“It’s definitely something that I can pitch with if it does pop up again. Hopefully it doesn’t, but I know I can still let it eat without feeling pain. It’s just kind of losing sensation in my fingers that last start,” he said.
Fulmer plans to play catch again on Thursday and then throw a bullpen on Friday. Brad Ausmus expects him to make a start early next week.
The skipper isn’t all that worried about the 24-year-old All-Star’s right arm.
“I don’t expect him to have any problems. He’s been dealing with this to some degree for a couple years after every start,” said Ausmus. “The only way we’ll find out if it’s gonna affect him is having him go out there and pitch.”
Asked if the persistent nature of Fulmer’s symptoms are cause for long-term concern, Ausmus said, “What are the options? I mean, there is a surgical option, but generally speaking surgery’s a last resort. There’s only one way to find out if the rest helped, so there’s not a lot of options.”
“I think surgery is a last option for me. Even though it’s only three, four months rehab, there’s always that setback, there’s always, ‘What if something goes wrong?’ I just wanna make sure that I’m ready by the start of next year,” he said.
“I’m more of a skeptic when it comes to getting under the knife. I’ve already had three of them, I don’t want anymore,” Fulmer added.
So he’ll take the mound next week, hoping that his symptoms are gone, ready to grit his teeth if they aren’t.
“Like I said, if I can still pitch with it, I’m gonna pitch through it,” said Fulmer.