'A great day': Turnbull makes first start since 2021

March 4th, 2023

LAKELAND, Fla. -- was walking off the mound at the end of his second and final inning on Saturday, grumbling about the run he allowed, when pitching coach Chris Fetter intercepted him in the dugout.

“If you have anything other than the best feelings about today, I’m going to be really mad at you,” Turnbull said Fetter told him. “I’m like, ‘I gave up runs. I didn’t have to.’”

“He was mad at the end because of some of the pitches that he made,” manager A.J. Hinch said after the 18-5 loss to the Blue Jays. “Which is really all that I need to know coming out of the first day. His stuff was really good. He threw a couple bad sliders. But all in all, it sure was nice to see him out there competing on the mound and being a good pitcher again.”

The last time Turnbull pitched in a game, he was still basking in the afterglow of his no-hitter against the Mariners in May 2021, and he was seemingly poised to take the next step in his career. Turnbull tossed four strong innings against the White Sox on June 4, 2021, left the game and was eventually diagnosed with a torn elbow ligament, requiring Tommy John surgery to repair.

Exactly 21 months later, Turnbull returned. And while he had plenty of self-critiquing from his two innings, he made sure to take a moment for gratitude.

“It was a great day. I’m really blessed and thankful,” he said. “It’s good to be back out there. I’ll get teared up probably later.”

Turnbull said he felt “invincible” in his first inning, starting with a first-pitch 93 mph fastball to Kevin Kiermaier, whom he fanned on three pitches, including his best slider of the afternoon. Then, Turnbull fired back-to-back 95 mph fastballs past Danny Jansen for another strikeout and retired Cavan Biggio for a smooth nine-pitch frame. He rolled with the pace of play, picking up his rhythm, but not hurrying.

“There were a couple times I slowed myself down on purpose and tried to let the clock run down a little bit, just to get a feel for it,” Turnbull said. “But for the most part, I felt comfortable with the clock. It’s a different pace, but I don’t mind going fast.”

Turnbull did not get a swinging strike in the second, and a couple of bad sliders put him in a tough spot when Nathan Lukes’ double put runners at second and third with one out. But Parker Meadows’ diving catch on Vinny Capra’s sinking liner turned what could’ve been a two-run single into a sacrifice fly.

“Very frustrated with those pitches,” Turnbull said of his slider. “But I have to keep on throwing them. Just gotta get there. I probably could’ve thrown curveballs in any of those places and it would’ve been a much better pitch. But normally, that slider has that late depth. I can usually get a swing and miss there, and those were not well-executed sliders. …

“But we’ll get it. Obviously, the slider is the last [pitch] to come back [after surgery], especially with game adrenaline, having to pitch out of the stretch, trying to find your timing, that late release point, it’s just fine-tuning. I feel like I did throw a couple good ones. It’s getting there. It’s just getting that consistency and execution back.”

That combination of competitiveness and confidence is just as good of a sign for Turnbull as his velocity and his health. That was working in his favor two years ago, as he seemed on the verge of a breakthrough. The Tigers could only hope that the injury and the long rehab that followed didn’t shatter it, but rather only interrupted it.

“He can be a dynamic pitcher for us,” Hinch said. “His stuff is as good as anybody’s. It moves. He has an opportunity to be dominant every time he’s on the mound. For our rotation, we need a healthy Spencer Turnbull.”

For a rotation that probably won’t have this year and that won’t get back likely until midseason, a healthy Turnbull is crucial. A confident Turnbull is even better.

A competitive one is the best.

Turnbull had no plans for a major celebration of his return. He’s just ready to get back into the routine of a normal pitcher, the routine he abruptly left behind two summers ago.

“Just hang out, get a good dinner and keep chucking,” he said.