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Tigers’ Michael Fulmer making progress in return from Tommy John

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LAKELAND, Fla. — At this time last year, Michael Fulmer was hoping for a healthier 2019. Instead, his injury woes went from bad to worse.

Fulmer needed Tommy John surgery and did not pitch at all last season, another setback for the right-hander who won AL Rookie of the Year honors for Detroit in 2016 but now faces an uncertain future for the Tigers. Still just 26 years old, Fulmer can give the team a lift if he comes back healthy, but that’s still a work in progress.

“I feel better than I thought I would at this point, playing catch out to 120 feet,” Fulmer said this week. “Next progression is getting on the mound. Very anxious for that moment, but we’ve got to wait until it gets here.”

Fulmer said he was hopeful he could throw on the mound around the end of March, perhaps before the team heads north.

Fulmer went 11-7 with a 3.06 ERA in 2016, his debut season in the majors. He was fairly solid again the following year, but since then, he’s had one problem after another. Oblique and knee injuries limited Fulmer in 2018, when his ERA rose to 4.69. He was hoping he had put those issues in the past at spring training last year, but he ended up facing an even longer recovery after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

“It took seven months without picking up a baseball, which is probably the longest time I haven’t touched a baseball since I was probably 4 years old,” he said. “Tommy John’s just a different animal. You start playing catch again, and you’re three, four weeks at one distance, throwing-wise. Then you’re getting moved up and then you’re excited, then there’s three, four weeks of that distance, and so on.”

Fulmer says he can understand why some other pitchers have been able to bounce back so well from this operation — the rehab process is extensive. But it’s not easy being at spring training when you can’t pitch yet.

“You can never get inside somebody’s head. All you can do is listen to them talk. He handles it very, very well,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “I’m sure he’s very frustrated. He wants to be out there doing all those things with all the guys, but through all this, he’s probably learned a little bit of patience, knowing when you try to rush it, it doesn’t really work out too well.”

The rebuilding Tigers are approaching a period of transition with their rotation. Three of their top prospects are starting pitchers, and although Casey Mize, Matt Manning and Tarik Skubal aren’t expected to begin the season in Detroit, their progress will be a big story in 2020.

Meanwhile, Matthew Boyd is the clear leader of the major league staff after striking out 238 hitters last year. Jordan Zimmermann, Spencer Turnbull and Daniel Norris are also in the mix — as is Fulmer. This season could go a long way in determining who fits into Detroit’s long-term plans on the mound.

So the sooner Fulmer can return and show what he can do, the better for everyone involved.

“He’s got to let everybody — smart guys, the medical people — get him into where he’s supposed to be,” Gardenhire said. “Then we see how he is halfway through the year.”

In the meantime, Fulmer has a chance to be something of a mentor to those highly touted prospects at spring training. If any of them can handle the transition to the majors as well as Fulmer did in 2016, the Tigers will be quite pleased.

“We were all 20, 21 years old once. It’s tough,” Fulmer said. “Those guys, they’re keeping their head down, they’re putting in the work. I’m excited to see what they have this spring training. I’ll be watching a little closer, since I don’t have much to do now.”

Follow Noah Trister at https://twitter.com/noahtrister

More AP MLB: https://apnews.com/MLB and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports



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Oakland A’s clinch third straight playoff berth, but ‘a lot bigger goals’ remain

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OAKLAND, Calif. — An AL West title will mean so much more than simply clinching a playoff berth given how the past two seasons have gone for the Oakland Athletics.

Then, the A’s might let loose and celebrate a little. But not just yet.

They secured a third straight playoff berth with Seattle’s loss to San Diego and a 6-0 win against the San Francisco Giants on Friday night, highlighted by Matt Olson‘s three-run homer.

“Clinching the playoffs is the goal every single year. Exciting, but winning the division I think is going to be a lot better for us,” winning pitcher Chris Bassitt said. “It was literally another win. We have a lot bigger goals.”

The A’s scoreboard read “POSTSEASON BOUND” high above the cardboard cutouts of fans filling the Oakland Coliseum.

Oakland is in the playoffs for the sixth time in nine seasons and now shifts its attention to the division title, which could be locked up Saturday. The A’s haven’t captured the West since 2013, winning 97 games each of the past two seasons to finish in second place behind Houston and before losing the AL Wild Card Game both years.

Olson connected in the third inning of a balanced offensive attack for the A’s in the opener of the second round of the 2020 Bay Bridge Series.

Jake Lamb‘s RBI single in the first staked Bassitt to a quick lead. The right-hander struck out seven over 6 2/3 innings to win his third straight start.

“He’s been absolutely terrific,” manager Bob Melvin said, “probably as consistent as we’ve had all year.”

Tommy La Stella and Marcus Semien also singled in runs for the A’s, who finally got a day off Thursday following a grueling stretch with 16 games in 13 days with three doubleheaders.

San Francisco hardly had to travel far to continue its road trip. The Giants were scheduled for games in Seattle earlier this week but smoke from all the West Coast wildfires created dangerous air quality and the clubs instead played at Oracle Park in San Francisco on Wednesday and Thursday. `

The A’s played a Monday doubleheader in Seattle, and players expressed concern about the air.

“The air quality is much better than we last saw it here, it certainly is better than Seattle, too,” Melvin said.

Right fielder Stephen Piscotty missed his fourth straight game with a sprained right knee. The A’s were going to put him through batting practice to determine his status for Saturday.

Also, right-hander Daniel Mengden was medically cleared from a positive COVID-19 test Aug. 28. He has been asymptomatic throughout and resumed throwing off the mound at the club’s San Jose alternate site Friday. He is slated for a simulated game Saturday.

Left-hander Jesus Luzardo starts for the A’s on Saturday afternoon, looking to end a four-start winless stretch in which he is 0-2.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Los Angeles Angels’ Albert Pujols passes Willie Mays on all-time home run list

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — Los Angeles Angels slugger Albert Pujols passed Willie Mays for fifth place on the career home run list, hitting No. 661 on Friday night against Texas.

The 40-year-old Pujols connected for a solo homer with one out in the fifth inning. He sent Wes Benjamin‘s fastball on a 1-2 count over the wall in left field.

Pujols has hit five homers this season. He tied Mays last Sunday at Colorado.

It is only Pujols’ second home run since Aug. 4. He now trails only Barry Bonds (762), Hank Aaron (755), Babe Ruth (714) and Alex Rodriguez (696).

The Angels quickly congratulated Pujols on Twitter.

Pujols has one more season left on his contract with the Angels after this year.

Benjamin was the 428th different pitcher Pujols homered against in his career. Only Bonds has homered against more (449).

The Associated Press contributed to this report.



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St. Louis Cardinals put pitcher Dakota Hudson on IL with forearm strain

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The St. Louis Cardinals have placed right-hander Dakota Hudson on the 10-day injured list with a strained right forearm.

Hudson left his start Thursday night after two innings due to what he described as discomfort in his right arm.

The 26-year-old is 3-2 with a 2.77 ERA in eight starts this season.

St. Louis added right-handed reliever Nabil Crismatt to take Hudson’s roster spot. Crismatt has a 3.24 ERA in 8 1/3 innings over six appearances this season.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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