Tigers’ Turnbull takes ‘a big step forward’ facing hitters for the first time

Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — It had been 19 months since Spencer Turnbull had stood on a mound and stared down an actual hitter, 19 months since he faced White Sox Yermin Mercedes with two outs in the fourth inning on June 4 at Guaranteed Rate Field.

Turnbull struck out Mercedes with a 3-2 sinker, walked back to the dugout and told pitching coach Chris Fetter that his forearm felt wrong.

He hadn’t been seen on a mound since.

Finally, on Thursday — after Tommy John surgery, after months of painstaking physical rehabilitation and months of isolation, introspection and frustration — Turnbull toed the slab in front of maybe 100 spectators on TigerTown Field No. 2 against Jonathan Schoop.

“It’d been a while,” Turnbull said, smiling. “Definitely a little nervous. I felt like a baby deer out there. Definitely good to be back out there.”

Turnbull threw one inning of live batting practice against Schoop, Austin Meadows and Javy Baez. Both Schoop and Baez were tardy on his four-seam fastball and sinker, which were clocking in at 94 and 95 mph.

The left-handed-hitting Meadows had better swings, ripping a single up the middle in one at-bat.

“Physically, he looks in a really good place,” said manager AJ Hinch, who was locked in on Turnbull’s inning. “I think today was more mental for him, to get out of rehab, out of the build-up and curiosity. He’d never done a rehab stint when he sweat that much or had Javy and Meadows and Schoop in the box.

“I don’t want to call this a hurdle, but it was a mental step forward, where you feel like a player again. It was fun to see him smile. I think he looks really happy, regardless of the stuff — and the stuff was really good.”

Turnbull said he was pleased with his velocity and command of his four-seam and two-seam fastballs. His curveball was also very sharp. The two pitches that he has less of a feel for were the slider and changeup.

“Honestly, there was more adrenaline when I threw my first bullpen (Monday) than there was today,” he said. “There was adrenaline for sure. There was a little extra excitement, but it felt a little more like nerves today. The bullpen session was more like pure energy.

“But, I’m glad to get that feeling back and kind of remembering what it feels like to pitch in front of people again, even if it was just a small group … This was a big step for me.”

It was also the first time Turnbull used a PitchCom device to get the signs from the catcher and the first time he’s had to pitch with the pitch timer.

“That was weird,” he said.

Weird for his catcher, too. Jake Rogers spent most of last year in the rehab ward in Lakeland, right alongside Turnbull, also rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. So, this was a first for both.

“Yeah, they are kind of throwing me into the fire with that,” Rogers said. “But, that’s good. I’m getting used to it.”

It’s going to take a little bit of time for Turnbull, as well.

“A couple of times out of the windup (the pitch clock) was running down a little bit,” he said. “If a (pitch) call comes in later and it’s not what I want, you really don’t have time to shake. I really hate that rule. That’s a huge disadvantage to the pitcher there. We should be allowed at least one timeout or reset per at-bat, or inning.”

With a runner on base and with pitchers working out of the stretch, they have 20 seconds to deliver a pitch. They are allowed two disengagements (step-offs or throw-overs) to hold runners or to reset. In the windup, though, they have 15 seconds to throw the ball with no step-offs.

“I think that’s a huge oversight in the rules,” Turnbull said. “In those situations (when the pitch clock is winding down), you are going to have to be like, ‘OK, I’m either taking a ball or just throwing a pitch I don’t really want to throw. That’s the issue that’s going to be a little bit of a struggle.

“The catcher isn’t going to know exactly what you want every time, and if the call comes in later for whatever reason and you only have four or five seconds left, you don’t have time to shake to another pitch.”

It leads to a lose-lose situation for a pitcher — take a ball and give up count leverage or throw a pitch without full conviction.

“It does change the game too much, in my opinion,” he said. “But, everybody’s got to deal with it. It’s not a big problem. Just have to get over that little mental frustration. It feels like an unfair set of rules. I do like the pitch clock to speed up the game and all that. I just wish we had one reset per inning, at least.”

Turnbull will throw one more live bullpen, probably two innings, before he makes his first Grapefruit League start. He still has more hurdles — mental and physical — to clear. But, he showed Thursday he’s on a good path.

“Man, his stuff was really good,” Rogers said. “For his first day facing live hitters, I was impressed. He was definitely nervous but — just like riding a bike. That’s what I told him coming off. You can’t forget it.”

Twitter: @cmccosky

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