Despite tough start, Turnbull 'glad to be back out there'

April 2nd, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG -- Considering how spent the past season and a half, it would’ve been hard for him to call Saturday’s 12-2 Tigers loss to the Rays a bad day at Tropicana Field -- and not just because he was chased after 2 1/3 innings.

The bad days for Turnbull were part of the rehab process last summer, getting his surgically repaired right elbow back in a condition where he could pitch again. Some days were good, others brutal. His career was put on hold just a handful of starts after he threw a no-hitter that had seemingly punctuated his arrival among the game’s nastiest pitchers.

“You have a lot of downtime, and it gets hard,” he said in Spring Training. “You can get depressed. You can stay anxious and fearful a lot. I’ve had to battle a lot of that over the last year and a half, but I’ve learned a lot about myself -- a lot of therapy, a lot of workouts, a lot of monotonous stuff.”

In that context, he will never take for granted the opportunity to get on a mound and compete. Even so, Saturday was tough.

“Definitely appreciate the opportunity,” Turnbull said. “No one wants to give up a seven-spot and get pulled out in the third inning. It’s tough for the boys to rally behind that. But I am glad to be back out there in a big league game. It’s been a long time. So I take that as a positive.”

Turnbull was battling from the outset, when Tampa Bay’s first four batters reached base safely, including a Randy Arozarena RBI double. With the bases loaded and nobody out, Turnbull reared back and challenged Luke Raley with fastballs, culminating in a 96 mph heater inside that sent down Raley swinging. It was Turnbull’s first Major League strikeout since he fanned then-White Sox phenom Yermin Mercedes on June 4, 2021, his last batter faced before surgery.

When Jose Siri grounded into a double play two pitches later, Turnbull pumped his fist at the play behind him from shortstop Javier Báez and second baseman Zach McKinstry, a double-play duo together for the first time. The fire was back.

Turnbull returned the favor in the second inning after a Josh Lowe popup fell between Báez and center fielder Riley Greene for a one-out double. His foul-tip strikeout of Francisco Mejía was one of the few sliders he felt positive about all day.

“I think in general, when his slider is backing up, that’s a little troublesome for him,” manager A.J. Hinch said.

A two-out walk to Yandy Díaz put another runner on for Brandon Lowe, but Turnbull leveraged an 0-2 count to get an inning-ending groundout.

Turnbull seemed to be on stable footing. But his first pitch of the third inning, a changeup that caught Arozarena on the elbow, put him back in trouble once Wander Franco’s opposite-field double put runners at second and third.

Turnbull still regrouped, fanning Raley on a changeup and putting Siri in an 0-2 count. But his 1-2 curveball was the right pitch in the wrong location. Siri crushed the hanger down the left-field line for a two-run double, and the inning spiraled out of control from there.

“It’s hard when you have to get away from the slider, because I just wasn’t executing it at all,” Turnbull said. “Usually I’m able to work out of those with a lot less damage. That third inning just blew up, got out of hand. But I was pitching behind guys all day. Good hitters are going to get you.”

Turnbull’s long-awaited return ended with a career-high seven runs allowed and as many walks as strikeouts, three apiece. Yet he induced nine swings and misses in just 63 pitches, at least one each off his two-seam and four-seam fastballs, changeup, curveball and slider. His fastball topped out at 95.7 mph, according to Statcast. But he drew just seven called strikes, four of them off his two-seamer.

“I just told him it was a lack of execution,” catcher Eric Haase said. “Game plan was fine. Getting ahead of guys was fine. Putting them away was a different story.”

Expect some more outings like this over the course of Turnbull’s return season. Velocity often returns before command for pitchers who undergo Tommy John surgery, though Turnbull suspects his trouble was more with his footwork in his delivery. Expect better outings, too, if he can build on the swing-and-miss stuff. And expect him to appreciate each time he takes the mound.