Wojo: Spencer Turnbull’s amazing journey from oh-no to a no-no

Detroit News

You never know when the moment will arrive and the mind will click. No matter the team or the record, the everlasting charm of baseball is its penchant for delivering unexpected magic.

Spencer Turnbull never knew when, or if, the moment would arrive. He spent much of his first three seasons with the Tigers battling doubts, nervous about pitch selection, anxious to prove he belonged. Just before 1 a.m. Wednesday, the mind met the moment, and Turnbull delivered one of the greatest pitching performances in Tigers history.

It certainly wasn’t a fluke no-no, nine strikeouts and two walks, first-pitch strikes to 24 of 29 batters. The Tigers beat Seattle 5-0, and it truly doesn’t matter that the Mariners are a weak-hitting team, no-hit earlier this month by the Orioles’ John Means. This was pure dominance under any circumstance, and while a no-hitter always is a surprise — it was the Tigers’ first since Justin Verlander in 2011 — the architect was not.

Turnbull, 28, isn’t one of the Tigers’ first-round prizes, and during the team’s miserable 2019 season, he led the majors in losses at 3-17. His arm wasn’t the problem. His fastball, sinker and slider weren’t the problem. He has credentials, the Tigers’ second-round pick out of Alabama in 2014 with a fastball in the mid-90s. He came up to Detroit late in 2018 and his repertoire outperformed his record, but on a rebuilding team, the lack of positive reinforcement can mess with a player.

It was a taxing journey and he questioned whether he could reach his potential. He was erratic on the mound and unsure of himself, shaking off pitches, searching for control. But always, there were signs. He was the Tigers’ best pitcher last season, and he’s overlooked no longer.

For one night at least — with strong indications of more to come — Turnbull found it all, and in the process found the pitcher he thinks he can be.

“The whole night, I was saying I’m not gonna be afraid to make any pitches, I’m not gonna second-guess or doubt anything, I’m just gonna attack,” Turnbull said. “If they hit one, they hit one. Just wanted to stay aggressive and not beat myself. Fortunately they kept hitting them at people and I made some really good pitches, and I made some pitches I probably got away with.”

That’s how no-hitters usually happen, with the timely flash of a glove. Third baseman Jeimer Candelario made the saving play, stabbing a sizzling grounder and throwing out Mitch Haniger to start the seventh inning.

It was an amazing confluence of events pulled off by an unlikely cast. Candelario is becoming extremely dependable but defense hasn’t been the Tigers’ strength. It was on this night. The catcher position hasn’t been a strength either, but here was rookie Eric Haase, 28, who played high school baseball at Dearborn Divine Child, directing a no-hitter in his 13th major-league start at catcher.

Mind games

And there was Turnbull on the field at T-Mobile Park conducting a postgame interview, hearing touching words from an emotional Jack Morris, who threw a no-hitter in 1984. As Turnbull spoke, globs of shaving cream dripped down his face, courtesy of an ambush by catcher Jake Rogers.

“I don’t really have words right now,” Turnbull said. “It’s probably the best day, the best night of my career. So freakin’ cool.”

So how did he arrive here, in just his sixth start of the season after missing the end of spring training with COVID-19? It was a moderate case and he lost about 10 pounds, then made his 2021 debut on April 21.

Now he’s 3-2 with a 2.88 ERA and is walking batters at the lowest rate of his career (2.1 per nine innings compared to 4.6 last season). He suddenly looks as promising as anyone in a developing rotation that features Matthew Boyd and Casey Mize. For someone who has struggled with self-doubt to the point he sought help from a mental-coach specialist in the past, this was a moment to frame, an incalculable confidence boost.

“It’s definitely the mental side of it, trust in myself, getting past any fears of failure, any anxiousness or anxiety,” Turnbull said. “Figuring out my mechanics, figuring out who I am as a pitcher, all of those have been challenges and hurdles to overcome.”

The clubhouse celebration was raucous, and manager AJ Hinch sounded excited and relieved. He didn’t have to worry about stressing Turnbull’s arm, as his pitch count topped out at 117. If anything, Turnbull got stronger as the game went on, striking out Haniger on a 95-mph fastball to end it.

Turnbull is unique, and not just because of his red-orange hair and matching beard. He can be wild and mild at the same time. His career walk ratio (3.5 per nine innings) is high, and his demeanor generally is low-key.

“We want him to be relentless as a strike-thrower with purpose, and not let these innings spiral out of control,” Hinch said. “Hitters talk about him more than the media. I think everybody knows when he’s locked in, he’s got really good stuff. I don’t think you need a no-hitter to validate that.”

Turnbull needed something these past few years, after battling minor injuries early in his career. When you get slapped with a 3-17 record in your first full season — with an ERA of 4.61 that suggests you deserved much better — you might grow a self-esteem issue.

‘Feel like I belong’

Former manager Ron Gardenhire joked that Turnbull “marches to a different drummer,” and the pitcher is known for talking to himself, or yelling at himself as he walks off the mound following a rough inning. He admitted he was uncomfortable in his own skin at times, not sure who or what he would become, and he committed to change. He adopted better diet and sleeping habits. He became more spiritual, less harsh on himself.

Sometimes no-hitters are random and not necessarily revelatory, just quirks of fate. This was the fifth in the majors already this season. Sometimes they seem more purposeful, like needed self-validation.

“I’ve come such a long way and I’m nowhere near being done,” Turnbull said. “I don’t know if I’ve arrived or not, but I definitely feel like I belong here for sure.”

Does the adversity make this achievement even sweeter?

“One hundred percent,” he said. “Without that stuff, you don’t get to know yourself as well. I have such a deeper understanding of who I am now. I’m definitely more me than I’ve ever been, the best version I’ve ever been to this point. …I wouldn’t change anything, COVID, all that other stuff. It kind of sucked at the time, but I wouldn’t trade a no-hitter for having COVID, that’s for sure.”

Turnbull said his mechanics felt “horrible” in pregame warm-ups and he knew he’d have to lean on his mind more than his arm. He laughed that he was “gonna have to fake it until I make it,” and by the second inning, he was making it, perfect pitch after perfect pitch.

In the final few innings, he wasn’t shaking off any of Haase’s signs, in sync and in complete control. That’s what made this night special for Turnbull, not just the results on the scoreboard but the machinations in his mind. It was the first complete game of his career, the first time he made it past seven innings.

“It’s about keeping your mind right, knowing even if you don’t have your best stuff, you can still attack and get the job done,” Turnbull said. “Things like that maybe would’ve rattled me early in my career, but I think I’ve matured to where, OK, even if I have my C stuff, I can still get outs. Whatever I got that day, I’m gonna work with it and stick with it.”

Who knows what’s next for Turnbull, but this felt more like an arrival than a one-night revival. It’s taken time, persevering through rough nights to reach the greatest night of his life. Now he has more reason than ever to believe, and evidence to show, that the first best moment of his career probably won’t be the last.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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