Turnbull faces hitters for first time since Tommy John

Detroit Tigers

LAKELAND, Fla. — Amid the quiet of TigerTown’s back fields, the sound was noticeable from Spencer Turnbull as he released his first pitches against hitters since June 2021. It wasn’t as a grunt, but it was louder than the heavy breathing of a pitcher finishing a throwing session in the Florida sun.

There was an emphatic release of air with each delivery on his final pitches. Considering the nerves he felt in his first batter-pitcher matchup since undergoing Tommy John surgery, it might as well have been a sigh of relief.

“Definitely a little nervous,” Turnbull said. “I felt like a baby deer out there, but it was good to be back out there. … I’m glad to get that feeling back, to remember what it’s like to pitch in front of people and stuff.”

While Turnbull, Joey Wentz, Alex Faedo and other Tigers threw, Tarik Skubal stood between the practice fields, chatting up teammates and coaches. It’s as close as he can get to a mound for now as he rehabs from flexor tendon surgery that ended his year on Aug. 17 and will delay his start to this season.

“That’s kind of what [manager] A.J. [Hinch] and [pitching coach Chris Fetter] wanted,” Skubal said, “was [for me] to be part of the camp and be out there, do [drills], whether I’m the runner at second base or whatever it is. And that’s been huge for me, because I don’t feel isolated. I feel like I’m part of the team. I just can’t be competing, but I can go watch and support the guys.”

Even as a bystander, it’s difficult to miss Skubal, who has hit the weight room during his rehab. What was a somewhat lanky frame a couple years ago is now stocky and muscular.

“I’ve had a lot of off-time,” Skubal said. “I had five months to kind of focus on the body, a lot longer than a normal offseason. Yeah, kind of got after it in that aspect.”

Their lockers are along the same stretch in the clubhouse at Joker Marchant Stadium, as are most of the Tigers’ starters. They’re all together, but in many ways they’re all in different locations in their throwing.

The Tigers used 17 starters last season. Skubal led the team with 21 starts and 117 2/3 innings. He won’t get a full season this year. Casey Mize might not pitch at all as he rehabs from Tommy John and back surgeries. Detroit signed Matthew Boyd and Michael Lorenzen to help fill innings, but neither pitched a full season last year. Boyd is stretching out as a starter again, after he was limited to a month in Seattle’s bullpen last year following recovery from flexor tendon surgery.

With all that, the Tigers are due for some good fortune and a strong bounceback. Turnbull, who threw a no-hitter shortly before his injury, might be their best chance as he prepares to rejoin Detroit’s rotation for Opening Day.

He didn’t just air out his arm Thursday, he threw all his pitches. His fastball has been around 94 mph so far this spring.

“Fastball’s coming out pretty good, felt nice and easy,” Turnbull said. “Movement was there, location wasn’t bad. Felt my curveball was really good today. Slider and changeup, a little subpar, but it’ll get there once I get used to it.”

Skubal, too, could be due for good fortune. He’s playing catch four times a week as he nears completion of his throwing progression.

“Get the arm strong, recover well and hopefully continue to push and get off the mound a little bit,” Skubal said, “and obviously when I’m ready to throw in games, throw in games and be back in Detroit.”

The Tigers have not announced a timetable for Skubal. A telling sign could come later this camp when the team has to open 40-man roster spots for any non-roster invitees who make the club. Detroit already opened one spot by putting Mize on the 60-day injured list. They could do the same with Skubal, but that would rule him out until at least the end of May.

Skubal didn’t give any hints on a timetable, but said he’ll finish his rehab in Detroit, again to feel like part of the team. That can’t be a bad sign.

“It’ll be nice to be around the guys when they’re home,” Skubal said. “When they’re on the road, I’ll continue my rehab progression.”

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