Turnbull spins no-no after fans 'called it'

Righty, who led MLB in losses in '19, throws MLB's fifth no-no of '21

May 19th, 2021

spent his first 50 Major League outings as a pitcher whose stuff was better than his results on the rebuilding Tigers. He led the Majors in losses in 2019, but he could defeat himself just as easily as his opponent.

So as fans behind the Tigers dugout at T-Mobile Park shouted at him on his way back in, he had reason to be skeptical.

“I got through the first inning and they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re the guy pitching tonight?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah,’” Turnbull said. “They’re like, ‘You’re throwing a no-hitter!’ It’s like the first inning. I got three outs. I was like, ‘All right, man.’”

Turnbull not only changed his history Tuesday night, he made a new chapter by throwing the Tigers’ first no-hitter in a decade, blanking the Mariners for a 5-0 win at T-Mobile Park. With the eighth no-hitter in Tigers history, the man whose habit of talking to himself on the mound earned him comparisons to Mark Fidrych joined Justin Verlander, Jack Morris, Jim Bunning and others in franchise lore.

“I don’t really know how to think of it in a historical perspective,” Turnbull said. “Just for myself, obviously, it’s the greatest achievement in my life so far, or at least my baseball career. It’s by far the best night of my life. And it’s definitely one of those landmark stamps on my career up to this point.”

It was the fifth no-hitter in the Majors this season and the second thrown against the Mariners this month, following John Means' gem in the Orioles' 6-0 win on May 5.

The no-hitter is also a just reward for a pitcher who has had an electric array of pitches at times in his career but has struggled for sustained success.

Until Turnbull beat Kansas City in his previous start, he had one career win against an American League team. He led the Majors with 17 losses in 2019, and entered Tuesday with a 9-25 career record and a 3.71 fielding independent pitching, compared to a 4.49 career ERA.

The 2014 second-round Draft pick had never pitched into the eighth inning in a start. His pitches have always had movement, from a mid-90s fastball to a biting slider, but he had to learn to command it. A delayed start to his 2021 season while battling COVID-19 at the end of Spring Training seemed to fit his misfortune, holding him out of Detroit’s rotation until four weeks ago.

But for a franchise that saw Virgil Trucks throw two no-hitters in a 19-loss season in 1952, maybe it was fitting. Not only did Turnbull shut down the M’s, he gave them little hope to hit him. Leadoff walks to Jarred Kelenic in the fourth inning and José Marmolejos in the ninth comprised Turnbull’s only blemishes. The M’s put just five balls in play out of the infield.

“The whole night, I was like, ‘I am not going to be afraid to make any pitches. I’m not going to second-guess or doubt or have any fear about anything. I’m just going to attack,’” Turnbull said.

The pitch data from Statcast backed him up. The Mariners swung at 30 of Turnbull’s 50 fastballs and whiffed on 12 of them, putting just five in play. Seattle swung over six more Turnbull sliders. Just two balls in play from Mariners bats had an expected batting average over .400, according to Statcast, both from Mitch Haniger.

Third baseman Jeimer Candelario, whose first-inning home run off Mariners starter Justin Dunn put the Tigers in front, provided the defensive gem behind Turnbull, lunging down the line to stop Haniger’s 108.4 mph grounder and throw across the infield for the first out of the seventh inning and the 10th groundout of the night. Haniger’s fourth-inning drive to center took rookie outfielder Akil Baddoo to the warning track for a 392-foot out.

“We could all feel it a little bit, especially after Candy’s backhand play on Haniger,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “Now that don’t-talk-about-it phase of the no-hitter started in the dugout, and we just started counting outs.”

“I don’t know if they hit anything hard after that,” said catcher Eric Haase, the first Major League rookie to catch a no-hitter since then-Giant Eli Whiteside caught Jonathan Sanchez’s no-hitter on July 10, 2009. “Spencer really got into a groove.”

Not since September 2017, when Matthew Boyd came within an out of a no-hitter against the White Sox before Tim Anderson doubled over Nick Castellanos’ head in deep right field at Comerica Park, had the Tigers come close to a no-no. So it was arguably fitting that Turnbull’s last out to history was his fourth at-bat with Haniger, after Kelenic beat out a double-play throw to keep Seattle alive.

Turnbull, already at a career-high in pitches, saved three of his best for last. His first-pitch sinker hit the strike zone just above Haniger’s knees, followed by a slider that darted off the plate as Haniger swung over it. Instead of toying with an 0-2 count, Turnbull went to a high fastball at 94.7 mph, which Haniger foul-tipped into Haase’s mitt as Turnbull raised his arms.

“That last at-bat, not only did I want to make my nastiest pitches, but I wanted to execute them as perfectly as possible,” Turnbull said. “That last four-seamer up and away kind of cut a little bit, exactly what I wanted to do with it. I just threw it as hard as I could. Whatever I had left, I was emptying the tank on that one.”

With that, the struggles of Turnbull’s career became a footnote on his way to history. According to Elias Sports Bureau, Turnbull became the fifth pitcher in Major League history to throw a no-hitter within two seasons of leading the Majors in losses, last accomplished by Scott Erickson with the Twins in 1994.

And as Turnbull received a shaving-cream pie from teammate Jake Rogers and a beer shower from others, he pointed back to the fans who yelled at him in the first inning.

“I was like, ‘You guys called it,’” Turnbull said.