How did Detroit Tigers’ Spencer Turnbull throw a no-hitter? Coaches, analytics and luck all helped

Detroit Free Press

Nine outs to the no-hitter.

Spencer Turnbull was on the mound for the Detroit Tigers, pitching the game of his life, just two months after battling COVID-19. Turnbull had been quarantined for three weeks, lost 10 pounds and missed the start of the season.

But here he was on Tuesday night, looking healthy and strong, tossing a gem against the Mariners in Seattle.

The Tigers shifted their infield to the left side and Turnbull threw a 93 mph fastball to Mitch Haniger, Seattle’s best hitter. Haniger smoked a ball at third base.

‘I BELONG HERE’: Why Spencer Turnbull’s no-hitter for the Tigers is only the beginning

“That was ball was so hard, I didn’t have time to think,” Turnbull said after throwing the eighth no-hitter in Tigers history.

The ball took one bounce in front of Jeimer Candelario, the Tigers third baseman, who was positioned perfectly.

Candelario crouched low, trying to read the ball, trying to be ready for anything — a skid, a hop, anything.

“You know, he’s a sinker ball guy,” Candelario said of Turnbull. “He’s a guy that you’re going to expect a lot of ground balls and you’ve got to be ready.”

The ball took a nasty bunce. Candelario raised his glove into the air — like a kid in the front of the classroom, who knows the answer to a question — and snagged the ball with his backhand, above his head, while falling to the ground. A thing of beauty. Candelario got up quickly, his feet shifting like a dancer. Shuffle, shuffle. And he tossed the ball to first base — calm and relaxed.

Candy, as he is known to his teammates, had made a play that was as sweet as honey.

“Candy made a heck of a play,” Turnbull said. “I was like, all right, I think this is my night. I’m just gonna keep going. And hopefully I can finish it.”

Every no-hitter has a few moments like this, when everything comes together perfectly, both the pitching and the defense. But let’s take a moment and put things into perspective. Because that moment showed Candelario’s growth at third base. Going into spring training, there were questions about who would play third base. But Candelario has proved to be the best option and he has only gotten better.

WHAT IT SOUNDS LIKE: Spencer Turnbull throws a no-hitter: Listen to the radio call

Another piece of the back story: Think about how Candelario was in the perfect spot. Manager AJ Hinch loves shifting his infield defense, trusts it, believes in the numbers and tendencies.

All of that came together and Candy was the right guy, in the right place.

“Oh, man, that was a great play by Candy,” Tigers catcher Eric Haase said. “You know, just to stay with it, hard one-hopper … after that play, I mean, I don’t know if they hit anything hard.”

This no-hitter was tremendous, no question.

But more than anything, it showed the influence of Hinch and pitching coach Chris Fetter, how they have been able to get Turnbull to grow and develop, even as he recovered from COVID.

MANAGER’S SPECIAL: How AJ Hinch learned an epic lesson: ‘Pour the foundation before you build the house’

“After that, Spencer really got into a groove,” Haase said. “And you know, he was just hammering the zone.”

Eight outs to the no hitter.

Kyle Seager flew out to Akil Baddoo in center field. Easy play.

“I don’t think you ever really start thinking about (the no-hitter) until the very end,” Hinch said. “One more time through the order.”

Seven outs to the no hitter.

Haase put down a sign and Turnbull fired the ball. All night long. They were working in unison, trusting each other, relying mostly on fastballs early and mixing in some sliders, change ups and curves.

[ Eric Haase continues strong stretch by calling Turnbull’s no-hitter ]

And Turnbull struck out Kyle Lewis.

“The last four innings, I don’t know if he shook one time,” Haase said. “We were just in really great sync and whatever I was putting down he was throwing. He was executing. So it made my job really easy.”

Think about everything that had to happen for Haase even to be on this team. He is only on this roster because starting catcher Wilson Ramos and backup Grayson Greiner were both injured. And he was only in this game because his bat has come alive. He hit two homers on Monday during his first start in left field.

So, of course, this 28-year-old catcher, who was born in Detroit, grew up in Westland and graduated from Dearborn Divine Child, was back in the lineup on Tuesday, guiding this pitcher to history.

“We pretty much chat in between every inning,” Haase said. “What feels good, what feels bad, try not to force certain pitches, even if it might be the right pitch. It doesn’t feel comfortable in his hand. You know, we don’t need to force it.”

Six outs to the no hitter.

In Turnbull’s three-year career, he had never pitched in the ninth.

Shoot, he had never even made it past the seventh.

But here he was, staying in the game in the eighth inning and attacking the strike zone, just like Hinch and Fetter preach.

And J.P. Crawford grounded out to second

“He’s been talking about it since the beginning of spring training,” Hinch said. “He wanted to be relentless as a strike thrower with a purpose and not just allow these things to spiral out of control.”

Actually, Hinch and Fetter have been the ones saying that. And all the pitchers are repeating it. That’s the subtle art of coaching.

“He’s done this a few games now,” Hinch said. “And, you know, we feel like he’s in complete control of the game. When he’s found the strike zone, you can generate soft contact.”

[ Spencer Turnbull throws a no-hitter: Listen to the radio call ]

Five outs to history.

Dylan Moore popped out to third.

Now, we have to point out something important. Seattle is a horrible hitting team, ranking last in the MLB in team batting average (.199), 21st in runs (167) and last in OPS (.642) after Tuesday night. I mean, this is a team that was no-hit by John Means of the Baltimore Orioles on May 5.

But that hardly mattered right now.

Because Turnbull was doing his thing.

“It was special,” Candelario said. “He threw the ball really well.”

Four outs to history.

Luis Torrens, Seattle’s catcher, struck out looking.

Turnbull had gotten through eight innings — for the first time in his career — and went to the bench

“I was just trying to stay focused and not let the moment get too big,” Turnbull said.

Turnbull is known for his quirky personality.

“He’s definitely out there,” former manager Ron Gardenhire said in 2019. “But you got to love him.”

But he has grown and, now, he could handle a moment like this.

“It’s definitely been a challenge,” Turnbull said. “I think you can be your own worst enemy, sometimes.”

Three outs to history

In the ninth, he had Jose Marmolejos down in the count, 0-2, and then walked him.

In the past, he might have crumbled. In the past, he might have let the moment get too big.

But he calmed himself down, walking behind the mound.

Turnbull blew air into his hand, walked up to the mound and he looked determined.

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

Hinch got Gregory Soto up in the pen — just in case.

He got a couple of borderline pitches called strikes, and that seemed to calm him down.

And he struck out Sam Haggerty.

“I didn’t really get nervous for him until the ninth,” Hinch said. “Just wanted it to happen so badly for him. He worked really hard to get there.”

Two outs to history

Jarred Kelenic hit a broken-bat grounder to Jonathan Schoop at second base.

“I thought I had the double play there,” he said.

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One out to history

Up came Haniger. Of course, it had to be him.

“He hit me hard twice already in the night and I was like all right, let’s see if we can do it a third time,” Turnbull said.

Fastball. Slider. Fastball.

“Probably three the best pitches I made all night,” Turnbull said.

He swung and missed. Strikeout.

Hasse caught the ball and came sprinting toward the mound. He whipped his mask to the side and met Turnbull in a bear hug. He lifted him in the air and was slapping him on his back, as the Tigers were jumping up and down.

In the dugout, Casey Mize slapped the railing and all of the Tigers came pouring of the the dugout.

They jumped up and down like kids.

They lined up, giving him hugs.

[ Turnbull got the no-no for the Tigers, but his closer had the final word ]

Matthew Boyd, who is like the dad of this group.

Candelario, the guy who made the great play.

And Hinch, the new manager.

So many things came together for this moment. The coaching. The growth. The analytics. The defense. The performance. The recovery from COVID.

And that surprising battery. A catcher and pitcher who are now locked in history in the most surprising way.

Turnbull and Haase found each other again. With another hug. One guy who had overcome COVID. The other playing in just his fifth game of the season.

Turnbull walked off the field and gave his girlfriend a hug, like a golfer coming off a green after winning a championship.

“Just a dream come true,” Turnbull said. “The best day of my life.”

Contact Jeff Seidel: jseidel@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.

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