By: Will Burchfield
“Yeah,” Michael Fulmer said with a chuckle, “it sucks.”
Fulmer hasn’t pitched since Aug. 1 due to right elbow neuritis. 11 days has felt like an eternity.
“I wanna pitch as much as I can, and for me it’s every fifth game. When you’re not able to do that, it just kind of sucks being there on the bench and watching your teammates,” said Fulmer. “I’m always itching to get back out there.”
Fortunately, for both Fulmer and the Tigers, he shouldn’t be resigned to the bench much longer. He has thrown each of the past three days, culminating in a bullpen session on Friday, and will return to the mound on Monday versus the Rangers.
Pending one thing.
“If he feels fine tomorrow,” said Brad Ausmus, “he’ll probably be on track for Monday.”
Fulmer threw about 20 pitches on Friday, and though the bullpen was cut short by rain he was able to get in the work he needed.
“I threw every pitch,” he said. “Didn’t feel anything.”
In his last start, Aug. 1 versus the Yankees, Fulmer experienced numbness and tingling in his pinky and ring fingers, stemming from a nerve issue around his elbow. It’s something he’s dealt with since 2014, but he’d never felt the symptoms in the middle of an outing.
“This was the first time I felt it during a start,” he said “I kind of felt it creep into my middle finger which is your dominant finger to throw any pitch, and it affected my changeup the most because my ring finger was basically numb. I had zero feeling whatsoever.”
In the past, Fulmer said, the symptoms have arisen after his start and lasted until the middle of the ensuing day.
“The night of, and then when I wake up the next morning it’s always super stiff and kind of some zinging down my last two fingers. But that’s normal for me,” he said. “That’s why I have four days ago before I pitch again, and it feels fine every fifth day. It feels 100 percent.”
Fulmer said the numbness didn’t affect his stuff versus the Yankees, and he showed no drop in velocity. But it did diminish his control.
“I kind of lost command with everything. The biggest red flag was that it crept into my middle finger and the fact that it was in the middle of the game,” he said.
The 24-year-old consulted with three doctors in the ensuing days, all of whom recommended the same thing: rest. Though he and the Tigers have discussed surgery, it’s not a serious option at this point.
“Just had to get the nerve to calm down a little bit. Nine days without throwing, and everything’s back to normal it seems like to me,” Fulmer said. “That was the best scenario we could hope for.”
Still, it’s a strange situation. Elbow trouble is never a good sign, and the fact that Fulmer, the foundation of the Tigers’ future, has dealt with it for such a long time is troubling. He was able to pitch through the symptoms for the better part of three years, until he wasn’t.
Doctors have told him there’s no risk in continuing to throw and Fulmer is hopeful the symptoms don’t resurface. But history says they will.
“I won’t know until I get out there and I know that I can let it eat with the fastball and slider and changeup. We’ll just see how it goes from there,” said Fulmer.
About 10 days of rest did Fulmer well in this case. But if he has to be shut down again, 10 days might not do it. Remember, it wasn’t long that he never needed extra rest in the first place. It’s hard not to feel like surgery is an inevitable conclusion, especially considering the recovery time would only be about three months.
Then again, Fulmer has proven he doesn’t need it. He dealt with the same issue last year when he won A.L. Rookie of the Year.
“If he can pitch with it and it doesn’t affect him pitching, do they have to do anything about it?” Ausmus said. “It would be tough to convince a guy, ‘We don’t know that it’s going to get any worse, but let’s go under the knife.'”
“I don’t know the answer. I know that he feels good. He feels fine. And he wants to pitch.”
On top of that, Ausmus said, “There’s been no indication that there’s any real long-term risk. Maybe it’s just one of those things that he can deal with. He might be able to deal with it for the rest of his career, as far as I know.”
Or he might not. Only time will tell.