Here’s the challenge Detroit Tigers’ Spencer Turnbull faces in back-to-back no-hitters

Detroit Free Press

On Wednesday night in Seattle, a little less than 24 hours after Spencer Turnbull had completed the eighth no-hitter in Detroit Tigers history, the right-hander finally found a challenge he couldn’t answer.

During an in-game interview with the Bally Sports Detroit broadcasting duo of Matt Shepard and Jack Morris, Turnbull was asked whether he’d heard of Johnny Vander Meer.

Turnbull paused for a second, then replied, “I have not, no.” Morris, who’d asked the question, clued him in with the knowledge he’d gained after throwing his own no-hitter for the Tigers in April 1984: Vander Meer is the only pitcher to throw back-to-back no-hitters in MLB history.

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On June 11, 1938, Vander Meer — in his second season and the 31st appearance of his career — no-hit the Boston Braves, 3-0, while pitching at home for the Cincinnati Reds. He followed that up, four days later, with a no-no on the road against the Brooklyn Dodgers, winning 6-0 on June 15. (His next start wasn’t quite as historic: Four hits allowed over nine innings in a rematch with the Braves, though the Reds won again, 14-1.)

There have been a little over 200 no-hitters thrown in the majors since Vander Meer’s second, and every pitcher since has failed to match his feat, save two who haven’t gotten their chance yet: Turnbull, scheduled to get his next start Monday against Cleveland at Comerica Park, and the Yankees’ Corey Kluber, who twirled a no-no Wednesday night in Texas and is set to start Tuesday vs. the Blue Jays.

After his impromptu history lesson, Turnbull immediately focused on the future and the challenge of at least outperforming Morris in his no-no follow-up: “I got a few days to figure that out,” Turnbull said. “I can accomplish that, too.”

Here’s a look at how the follow-ups of the Tigers’ seven previous no-hitters went:

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May 13, 2011: Justin Verlander

Tigers 3, Royals 1: No Tiger in 60 years has come closer to back-to-back no-hitters than Verlander a decade ago. He wasn’t quite sharp early, issuing walks in the second and sixth innings — paradoxically, he said “my stuff tonight was better” after the game — but he was good enough to get the Comerica Park crowd on its feet for an ovation at the end of the fifth inning. “The hair stood up on the back of my neck,” Verlander said.

And no wonder; he’d just completed his fifth inning of the night without a hit. But in the sixth, a two-out RBI triple by Melky Cabrera ended the bid. “I threw a bad pitch,” Verlander said. It was one of only a few — he finished with two hits and three walks allowed, with seven strikeouts over eight innings — as he came up 3⅓ innings short of history.

[ How Verlander’s 2nd no-hitter ‘made people sit up in the buggy’ 10 years ago ]

June 17, 2007: Verlander

Tigers 7, Phillies 4: Beloved already in Detroit in his second season, Verlander received a rude welcome as the Tigers visited Philadelphia: “The only thing different was the fans yelling at me: ‘No no-no today!’ Typical. I expected it.” As quickly as the door to a second no-hitter opened — a scoreless first, a flyball by Philly slugger Ryan Howard to open the second – it slammed shut equally fast with an ugly sequence: A walk, hit-by-pitch and line-drive single ending Verlander’s no-no bid.

The final total: seven hits allowed, to go with two walks and six strikeouts in six innings. Still, Verlander got the win, thanks to a hit he wasn’t on the field for: Gary Sheffield, pinch-hitting for Verlander in seventh, singled to drive in a run, then scored the tying run three batters later. The Tigers took the lead that same inning, making Verlander the pitcher of record even though he’d been done for a while. “I’m so pleased — our position players really picked me up today in a different way,” Verlander said after the game. “In my last start, they picked me up with their defense. Today, they picked me up with their bats.”

April 12, 1984: Jack Morris

Tigers 9, Rangers 4: In his second start of the season, Morris made it through 32 batters and 2 hours and 44 minutes without allowing a hit. In his third start, he made it through one batter, with Texas’ Mickey Rivers opening the action with a single mere seconds into the day game at Tiger Stadium.

[ Jack Morris’ 10 greatest games with the Detroit Tigers ]

Morris was unfazed: “I’m kind of glad it’s over, really,” he said after the game. “Now I can get back to reality.” Well, almost. Morris allowed seven hits and a walk, but just two runs — both unearned — over seven innings as the Tigers pounded Detroiter Frank Tanana for seven runs in the first six innings. The combo resulted in two unreal numbers: A 0.39 ERA for Morris and a 7-0 start for the Tigers, the longest winning streak to open a season in franchise history. “It’s not as hard for a good pitcher to win with a good ball club. I went out today without my best stuff … and we scored nine runs. I know if I hold them close, this team is going to get runs. It’s a great feeling.” Morris finished the year with a 3.60 ERA, and the Tigers won the World Series, thanks to a 9-0, then 35-5, start.

July 24, 1958: Jim Bunning

Yankees 10, Tigers 7: Bunning wasn’t the only pitcher to take the Briggs Stadium mound in Detroit with a notable recent no-no — his counterpart for New York was Don Larsen, possessor of a perfect game in the 1956 World Series. And so, of course, the duo combined to give up 14 hits over 10⅓ innings as the Tigers built a 5-0 lead then blew it in the final three innings.

Bunning made it through the first two innings without a hit, then gave up a shot down the right-field line to Marv Throneberry to open the third. But that was the only hit the Yankees managed for the first six innings. The seventh was a different story: A single by Mickey Mantle, a single by Yogi Berra, a single by Norm Siebern. Then, after a foul out to first by Elson Howard, it was Throneberry’s turn again: Grand slam. The eighth wasn’t much kinder, as Mantle singled again with one out and Berra homered to end Bunning’s afternoon. His line: eight hits, two walks, four strikeouts and six runs in 7⅓ innings.

Aug. 29, 1952: Virgil Trucks

Cleveland 4, Tigers 2: Trucks’ second follow-up of the season to a no-hitter, like so many games for the 1952 Tigers — 41 games under .500 entering this one — got off to a rough start. He retired the first two Cleveland batters at Briggs Stadium, but couldn’t finish the inning cleanly, giving up a single to Harry Simpson followed by a walk to Luke Easter and an RBI double by Al Rosen. The Tigers tied it up in the bottom of the inning, and Trucks was perfect until the fifth inning.

Then, with one out, Cleveland sandwiched a double and a single around a groundout by pitcher Bob Lemon for the go-ahead run. Trucks gave up two more runs to open the sixth. There was no bailout this time from the Tigers’ bats, despite Trucks going eight innings. He allowed seven hits, two walks and four runs, with four strikeouts to take the loss — his 16th of the season.

May 21, 1952: Trucks

Tigers 5, Athletics 1: If the 3,718 fans at Briggs Stadium believed in omens from the baseball gods, Trucks was set up for a repeat no-hitter. In the building was Oscar Stanage, who’d been in attendance for both of the franchise’s previous no-nos — first as a catcher for George Mullin’s gem in 1912, then as a gate watchman behind home plate for Trucks’ gem on May 15. “I would’ve been fined if I hadn’t seen Mullin’s game,” Stanage told the Freep. “I would’ve been fired if I hadn’t been in the park when Trucks threw his. … So I saw them both.”

Trucks did his best to give Stanage a third no-no experience despite a bases-loaded jam in the top of the first. After a walk, an error by the second baseman and another walk, Trucks struck out Billy Hitchcock, a former Tiger, to end the inning. Trucks then cruised through the next five innings with just one baserunner (Eddie Joost, hit by a pitch to open the third). Meanwhile, in another nod to the baseball gods, it was another Mullin with a star turn — this time, Tigers outfielder Pat Mullin, who delivered a two-run homer into the upper deck in right in the first inning.

But Hitchcock got his revenge with one out in the seventh, lining a shot over the shortstop for a single and ending Trucks’ hitless run at 15⅔ innings. (He’d thrown a hitless third of an inning in the start before his no-no.) Trucks finished with two hits, four walks and one run allowed over 7⅔ innings, with five strikeouts with “dazzling stuff,” as the Freep put it the next day.

July 9, 1912: George Mullin

Tigers 6, Highlanders 2: As the Freep put it the next day, “Detroit at its present gait is no champion. But in comparison the Yankees loomed up like a schooner of suds in the throne room” — that was its way of saying the real threat to Mullin’s chances of a back-to-back no-hitter was the heat, and not the franchise that would later be rechristened as the Yankees, which entered the game with a 19-50 record.

And indeed, the Tigers scored two quick runs in the top of the first at Hilltop Park. (Yankee Stadium was nearly a decade from existence.) But Mullin issued a walk to Bert Daniels to open the game, followed by a sac bunt and a single by Dutch Sterrett. Two batters later, Hack Simmons singled — “lucky enough to get a hit on a Texas leaguer into left,” according to the Freep — to get the Highlanders on the board. Mullin would actually be better at the plate than on the mound; he singled in each of his two at-bats, with two RBIs, before “the heat had got to big George … and (Brad) Kocher was put in to run for him.” Mullin finished with four hits, one walk and one run allowed, with two strikeouts, over three innings.

Free Press sports writers John Lowe, Bill McGraw, Lyall Smith and Shawn Windsor contributed to this report.

Contact Ryan Ford at rford@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @theford. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter

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