Tigers drop 13th straight Turnbull start

September 1st, 2019

DETROIT -- The 102nd and final pitch from registered at 97 mph on Statcast, the hardest ball Turnbull threw Sunday afternoon. It was the kind of finishing kick Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer thrived on during their prime seasons as Tigers.

The problem for Turnbull was that his final pitch came in the fifth inning. After Willians Astudillo grounded it through the left side for a two-out RBI single, Turnbull’s afternoon was over. The Tigers, meanwhile, were on their way to an 8-3 loss.

It wasn’t the shellacking the pitching line would suggest, especially against a Minnesota team that feasts on home runs. But it also was a sign of a pitcher still in need of refinement.

“Turnbull, he’s got some good stuff,” Twins outfielder Jake Cave said. “It’s just that I don’t think he’s really figured it out yet about where he’s throwing, and that kind of stuff.”

It marked the 13th consecutive Turnbull start the Tigers have lost since his last win, the longest such streak in a single season in franchise history, according to Baseball Reference. The Tigers lost 13 consecutive starts from Ted Gray over a two-season stretch from September 1952 into June '53.

For Turnbull, it’s an amazing stretch for a pitcher who was on the fringe of conversation for American League Rookie of the Year consideration two months into the season. When he tossed six innings with an earned run allowed for his last victory, on May 31 at Atlanta, he had a 2.84 ERA, a .237 batting average allowed and 64 strikeouts over 66 2/3 innings.

Turnbull has 10 losses and three no-decisions since then, a streak that has certainly featured his share of struggles. He has tried to recapture the slider that drew so many swings and misses early in the year, turned his curveball into his breaking pitch of choice, saw his velocity dip and then dart back.

“You see him throw a good [slider], and then you see him bounce two in front of the plate. Not even close,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “It's all about the mechanical part of it, and not overthrowing it, which he does. He tries to throw the nastiest pitch in the world when all you need is a nice little slider off that fastball.”

Turnbull sees it as a battle for a consistent delivery.

“I'll throw a few [sliders] that are really nasty and exactly what I'm trying to do, and then I'll throw a few that don't seem to bite the same,” he said. “I'm giving up a lot of hits on that. Same thing with some fastballs. I'll throw one that sinks, feels like it sinks a foot under the barrel, and then I'll throw the next one that doesn't seem to move the same and they get too much of it. I don't know what that is exactly, but obviously I'm trying to fix it and get better.”

When Turnbull retired the side in order on two strikeouts in Sunday’s first inning, it marked his first 1-2-3 inning since Aug. 15, three starts ago. After that, he couldn’t do much to prevent what Minnesota hitters did to pull ahead early. One night after the Twins homered six times in a 10-7 Tigers' loss, they put up six runs against Turnbull on seven singles and a double.

While Turnbull powered fastballs at 96-97 mph, none of the five hits against him in a five-run second inning had an exit velocity over 100 mph. The hardest-hit ball of the inning was a 102.3 mph line drive from Max Kepler that Brandon Dixon ran down in left field for an out.

“Obviously I'm trying to keep the ball in the yard, and I was able to do that today, and I still gave up six runs,” Turnbull said. “I don't know if some of that is just bad luck or what. They hit the ball hard several times, but I think they found some perfect holes, too. Part of that is just baseball. It's just frustrating.”

Part of it is the relationship between infield positioning and pitching. Four of the five second-inning hits off Turnbull went to the opposite field, including two ground-ball singles through the open space of an infield shift. Cave’s two-run single was hit through the left side and into left-center field. Jason Castro singled in another run with a ground ball to left. Longtime Tiger tormentor Nelson Cruz, who hit a tape-measure home run into the center-field shrubs Saturday night, completed Sunday’s second-inning rally with a ground ball through the middle.

“You saw we were in the shift and they kept flipping balls through,” Gardenhire said. “That was mostly because when you are playing the shift, you're supposed to throw it inside so they hit it into the shift. But he just missed out and over the plate. We started to make adjustments a little later and kept them on the other side [of second base]. But those guys are really good hitters over there. They see that hole and [if] there's an RBI out there, they're not afraid to punch one through the hole. That's what they do. They're good enough hitters over there, they can do those things."

The Twins did it by design.

“[Turnbull is] throwing a mid-90s fastball with some good movement on it,” Cave said. “So if you’re in the zone with your bat path and that kind of stuff the right way, you’re going to hit some stuff to the opposite field, and I just think that’s what our lineup did.”

Turnbull (3-14) retired his first four batters, then just three of his next 13. Dixon doubled in one run and scored another along with a Jordy Mercer home run, but the Tigers couldn’t get back into the game.