DETROIT -- Tigers right-hander Spencer Turnbull was getting ready to begin his pregame routine Saturday, 90 minutes before his scheduled first pitch, when he was called into a team meeting with manager Ron Gardenhire and general manager Al Avila.
There, Turnbull found out that Gardenhire, the only Major League manager that he and more than half of the Tigers’ roster had known, was retiring for health reasons.
“I was completely shocked. I had no idea,” Turnbull said after Saturday’s 5-2 win over the Indians at Comerica Park. “It was a wave of emotions, to say the least.”
He wasn’t the only one feeling it.
“It was tough for [Gardenhire]. It was tough for us. It was tough for Al,” Daniel Norris said. “No part of that was going to be easy, but he did a great job. And I think the biggest thing that he didn't need to say, but he did repeat a few times was, 'I hope and pray that you guys don't think I'm walking out on you.' For obvious reasons, we did not think that. That didn't even cross anybody's mind. And that's just a testament to who he is as a person.”
Gardenhire believed in Turnbull enough to give him a chance in the Tigers’ rotation in 2018 after Michael Fulmer was injured. Turnbull wasn’t a highly-rated pitching prospect; he had a 4.47 ERA as a 25-year-old in Double-A Erie before a couple of outstanding starts at Triple-A Toledo.
Gardenhire believed in Turnbull the next spring when Fulmer’s Tommy John surgery created a void in Detroit’s rotation. He still believed in Turnbull even after the righty recorded just five outs on 56 pitches in Oakland last September.
“He kept giving me opportunity after opportunity, even when I did have some struggles,” Turnbull said. “I had a really rough one in Oakland, and I remember him and some other guys had some talks with me that night. But he's one of the ones that said, 'You're really good. You've just got to believe it.'”
Gardenhire believed in Turnbull, just like he believed in a team that lost 114 games last year.
“What made him good for us,” Norris said, “was just how personable he was. He was always so positive. Obviously he'd be upset when we lost, but I can think of a bunch of times when he'd come in after a loss and give us a 10-second pep talk, and that's all we needed. We don't need to be sat down and yelled at or told what we did wrong. We also didn't need to be left alone.
“It was like he knew exactly what to say at the right times. It wasn't after every loss. It was after maybe a few in a row or some of the longer losing streaks. His timing was perfect for that, and the tone that he had with it -- we wanted to win for Gardy, and we wanted to work hard for him.”
Gardenhire also had a lot of fun with Turnbull, and he wasn’t afraid to poke fun at the pitcher and get him off his game. He joked after Turnbull’s start in Pittsburgh last month that he had to keep the clubhouse steps clear so that nobody would get run over when Turnbull charged out of the dugout each inning.
“I just love our banter in the dugout, man,” Turnbull said. “He always gives me a hard time, says something smart to me. I'm going to say something smart back and he'll just shake his head and laugh, just give me one of those looks like I'm an idiot or something, but you know that he loves me too. That's probably what I'll miss the most.”
That abruptly ended Saturday. And somehow, Turnbull had to pitch a game in 90 minutes.
“The players are really very resilient. They bounce back,” said Lloyd McClendon, who had to transition from bench coach to interim manager. “They all said their goodbyes, and then they got ready to play.”
That included Turnbull, just before he went out to the field to warm up and Gardenhire was leaving the clubhouse.
“I just gave him a little salute before tonight as he left before the game,” Turnbull said. “Tonight was more about just trying to push that to the side as best as I could and try to focus on doing my job and hopefully getting the win for him.”
The Tigers took the field with McClendon stepping in as manager, but they competed -- and rallied for Gardenhire.
José Ramírez's third-inning, two-run double stood as the difference for much of the game despite six-plus quality innings and seven strikeouts from Turnbull. Norris stranded a potential insurance run on third with back-to-back strikeouts in the seventh, then Jeimer Candelario made a quick catch to rob Ramírez and a diving tag to double off Cesar Hernandez and end another threat in the eighth.
Harold Castro’s leadoff walk and Niko Goodrum’s one-out single set up Detroit’s go-ahead rally in the bottom of the inning. Former Indians Minor Leaguer Eric Haase worked out of an 0-2 hole against reliever Phil Maton to send a ground-ball single up the middle to tie the game.
Up came Daz Cameron, who was 2-for-28 entering the game but posted a two-hit night. His second hit, an opposite-field line-drive single, scored Goodrum to put the Tigers in front. Victor Reyes’ bases-loaded walk and Willi Castro’s sacrifice fly tacked on insurance runs, the latter of which scored Cameron without a play at the plate as the rookie made an aggressive dash home.
“It was very fitting,” Norris said. “We were all thinking about it. We wanted to win that for Gardy.”