Turnbull 2.0: Tigers’ hurler ‘feeling great’ as Tommy John recovery drags on

Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — It was almost like a scene from a bad movie.

One minute Spencer Turnbull was at the pinnacle of his career, throwing a no-hitter in Seattle on May 18, and the next minute, poof — gone. Never heard from again.

That might seem a bit dramatic, but it had to feel that way to Turnbull, who walked off the mound in Chicago June 4 with right forearm pain, had Tommy John surgery 25 days later and hasn’t pitched since.

“It definitely sucked,” said Turnbull on Thursday from his home in Charlotte, N.C. It’s the first time he’s spoken publicly since the surgery.

“I had plenty of time to feel the emotions,” he said. “There’s only so much physical therapy and exercises you can do. Especially in the early part where it’s kind of a waiting game, just trying to get back to where you can functionally do stuff with your arm.”

While Turnbull was casted and grinding through rehab, first in Lakeland and then home in Charlotte, the Tigers were playing their best baseball since 2016, posting a winning record over the final five months of the season.

“Would’ve been nice to be a part of that,” he said.

Turnbull tried to keep tabs. Some teammates and coaches reached out every now and then. But, as any player who has had a significant injury can tell you, long-term rehab is a lonely island.

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“I would say there was definitely a strong sense of loneliness and isolation,” he said. “You deal with a lot of anxiety, fear, whatever. You wonder if you will be the same. You don’t want to let yourself go there, but it’s not like those thoughts don’t cross your mind.”

Slowly, the darkness is lifting. He is throwing a baseball again. He’s been throwing — tossing, really, on flat ground for over a month. Whatever uncertainty he may have felt early in the process has been replaced with optimism.

“It’s subject to change, of course, but timeline-wise with my throwing program, I definitely expect I’ll be able to pitch this year at some point,” Turnbull said. “I don’t know if that will be August or September or what. But if everything goes according to plan, there is no reason I won’t be able to.”

That would be 13 months from the day of surgery, which is an aggressive timeline for recovery from Tommy John surgery. Turnbull knows that.

“That’s why you have to stay focused on the day-to-day as much as you can,” he said. “Don’t get too far ahead of yourself. I don’t want to put a lot of pressure on myself to have to be ready by a certain point. But at the same time, I’ve been feeling great, throwing feels great.

“It’s like I feel like I could throw really good right now and I want to cut it loose. But no, no. You have to try to pace yourself. You can’t try to do too much too soon.”

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It would be nice if he could have Tigers head athletic trainer Doug Teter and pitching coach Chris Fetter standing over his shoulder to keep him from over-doing it. It would be nice to be doing his work here in Lakeland, at the facility he’s so familiar with, with strength coaches and physical therapists he’s worked with for years. It’d be nice to have the company of his teammates again.

The lockout isn’t letting that happen.

“It’s definitely been weird,” he said. “It’s obviously not ideal. I’m still putting the work in here and I’m really comfortable with my physical therapists and the doctors. Nothing is really lacking, it’s just really weird not being able to talk to the team about a really significant rehab.”

He’s leaned hard on his family and his agent throughout this process. His girlfriend Ashley TerKeurst has been a rock. She was on the field that night in Seattle helping him celebrate the no-hitter. He thinks back on that night often.

“I haven’t forgotten that,” he said. “I don’t let that slip too far out of my mind. Obviously I wish I could have continued the season and never have that other stuff come up.”

He thought initially it was just a forearm strain. That’s why he spent nearly a month in Lakeland rehabbing. Time wasted, as it turned out.

“It was hard to tell after the first MRI,” Turnbull said. “When they told me it was a forearm strain I was like, ‘OK, let it get better, give it a month or two and I’ll be all right.’ I thought I dodged bullet. But then it wasn’t getting better and I was like, ‘I don’t know man, we better look at it again.’

“It told a different story the next time.”

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The second round of tests revealed a Grade 2 tear of the UCL.

“At that point it was just, let’s get it done and try to get back as soon as I can,” he said.

The timing was so cruel. After showing flashes of brilliance in 2019 and especially 2020, Turnbull was looking like an ace last season. When he walked off the mound in Chicago, he was 4-2 with a 2.88 ERA and a 0.98 WHIP.

He can’t help but wonder, as he works to get back, where his starting point will be this time.

“It felt very strange coming back and throwing with a brand-new elbow after not throwing for six months,” Turnbull said. “It’s weird, but it’s fun at the same time. Kind of getting to start over. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve done so far in my career. Hopefully this is just a one-and-done situation for the rest of my career.”

Kind of like an intermission between two great acts.

“It’s an unfortunate bump in the road for sure, but it’s not anything career-ending,” he said. “I’m excited to come back hopefully better than I was before. Like Spencer Turnbull 2.0 or something like that.”

Can’t wait to see it.

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky

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