DREW SHARP: Gritty Michael Fulmer worth more to Tigers far beyond 2016

STAR ROOKIE: Detroit Tigers rookie Michael Fulmer pitches against the Kansas City Royals on Sunday at Comerica Park. (Detroit Free Press photo)

STAR ROOKIE: Detroit Tigers rookie Michael Fulmer pitches against the Kansas City Royals on Sunday at Comerica Park. (Detroit Free Press photo)

If there’s any visible hint of the growing expectations and subsequent pressure, Michael Fulmer cleverly hides it. His emotions neither swing too high nor too low. His manager marvels at his poise.

“I don’t think his heart rate changes,” Brad Ausmus said.

It probably elevated a touch when he was in the trainer’s room in the ninth inning Sunday getting his customary poststart treatment on his pitching shoulder. He heard the audio of the Tigers television broadcast in the clubhouse calling Jarrod Saltalamaccia’s walk-off, two-run homer that gave the Tigers an important series victory over the Kansas City Royals at Comerica Park.

“That was a pretty exciting finish, wasn’t it?” Fulmer said. “I heard everyone screaming, so I figured it must have been something good. This was a nice win for us.”

Fulmer didn’t get the win, but it was nonetheless his most impressive start. He stared down rare adversity in the third inning, calming down a game that easily could have slipped away from the Tigers.

It’s always precarious counting on a rookie starting pitcher, but the Tigers have no other options. Injuries and incompetence have forced a faster maturation for the 23-year-old than the Tigers would have preferred when they promoted Fulmer from Triple-A Toledo in late April.

But it all rolls off Fulmer. Does he understand he’s a heavy favorite for American League rookie of the year? Does he appreciate how much his role has grown on a team desperate for solid starting pitching?

“All I can do is just take it one game at a time,” he said. “You don’t let yourself think about all that other stuff. You just get yourself ready for when you take the ball next in five days. I don’t put any more pressure on myself. I’m just trying to help us win games. That’s the only thing that matters. We got the win today. It was a good team win.”

For the first time since his fourth career start May 15, Fulmer surrendered more than one earned run. The Royals took a 2-0 lead with two runners aboard and one out in the third inning. But Fulmer minimized the damage, striking out the next two batters in the heart of the batting order.

Fulmer struck out Salvador Perez swinging on a nasty slider, then got what could be best described as a veteran respect call from umpire D.J. Reyburn on a pitch to Alex Gordon that looked high and outside and should have been Ball 4. But it was a called strike. Fulmer fanned Gordon, averting disaster and providing the Tigers something they have received too infrequently this season — gutsy starting pitching.

There’s already a grittiness within this young man reflective of a sage veteran.

But Fulmer takes praises the same as he faces difficulty — with a calm indifference.

He’s making it harder for the Tigers to remain committed to keeping him on a tight innings count, even if that means shutting him down in September should he clear 160.

Playoff contention’s important, but how the Tigers handle Fulmer’s rookie second half is about money. Even though Fulmer is five seasons away from free agency, his value to any team is cost control. Young talent isn’t as easily disposable as it once was.

There’s a significant loss if a team pushes a young arm too hard too soon because he’s too good. Of the past five starting pitchers who won their respective league’s rookie of the year award, Miami’s Jose Fernandez and then-Tampa Bay pitcher Jeremy Hellickson experienced serious physical issues early in their careers. Both required elbow surgery.

Hellickson pitched the most innings of those five in his rookie season — 189.

Fernandez pitched 172 2/3 innings.

Justin Verlander took AL rookie honors in 2006, pitching 186 innings.

As a comparison, Mark Fidrych tossed an astonishing 250 1/3 innings — with a MLB-high 24 complete games — in his storied 1976 rookie campaign. He pitched only 162 innings the rest of his career following assorted injuries.

There’s definitely something special about Fulmer. He’s got the stuff and the temperament of a future ace. But whatever short-term benefits he has given a pitching-bereft team, Fulmer remains more important to what he can offer the Tigers far beyond this season.

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Posted by Tribune News Services

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