How Spencer Turnbull deals with demons, plans to be better for Detroit Tigers’ Opening Day

Detroit Free Press

HOUSTON − The boys are coming back home.


Spencer Turnbull will take the mound when the Detroit Tigers play the Boston Red Sox on Thursday afternoon on Opening Day in Comerica Park.

“It’s a huge honor,” Turnbull said. “I’m really excited for it.”

Turnbull has already experienced Opening Day in the D.

In 2019, he got the start when the Tigers opened their home season against Kansas City, which was actually the eighth game of the season. It was cold — 39 degrees and windy at the first pitch — but the crowd was electric with 42,641 fans. Turnbull had a brilliant performance, throwing six innings, striking out 10, walking just two and giving up just two earned runs.

“It was one of the best games of my life, so far,” he said. “I just remember it being incredible. It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. The electricity, the atmosphere. The whole city takes off and it’s like a holiday. It’s wild. It’s so fun.”

So what are his thoughts about pitching this year?

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“It’s a huge honor to be chosen,” Turnbull said. “It shows A.J. (Hinch) has a lot of faith in me.”

Turnbull let out a self-deprecating laugh.

“Especially after last week — yikes.”

Digging deeper into a loss

When you look at the Tigers’ season to this point, you can look at the macro: how the Tigers got swept in Tampa and then won the series in Houston. It has been a study in resilience and fight.

That’s the big picture.

But every season, every team, can be viewed in small slices — the stories of individual players.

Which brings us back to Turnbull.

And last week yikes.

Pitching against Tampa Bay on last Saturday, in his first regular-season game since Tommy John surgery, Turnbull lost it mentally, if not emotionally. In 2⅓ innings of work, he gave up seven runs off eight hits with three walks. It was disastrous. Like some kind of strange April Fools’ Day joke. With no punchline. Just misery.

The Tigers lost, 12-2.

“It was very discouraging, very disheartening in that moment,” Turnbull said. “This game will humble you in a freaking heartbeat, and I didn’t have the right mindset. I wasn’t aggressive. I wasn’t attacking. I wasn’t getting ahead. I was pitching more to avoid contact.”

That’s important in the big picture as well.

When critics pontificate about the Tigers’ season to this point, trying to summarize the state of this team from the Tampa disaster to the encouraging signs in Houston, focusing on the macro, the truth usually comes down to a series of individual stories.

And there is a direct link between Turnbull’s mindset and one of those Tigers’ losses.

“I just had a horrible mindset,” he said. “I wasn’t pitching my game. I wasn’t pitching with conviction. I let a lot of fearful thoughts enter my brain. That’s not how I’m supposed to pitch. I’ve learned that before but honestly, it has been so long. I forgot what it was like to get going in that moment.”

As he pitched, his old demons came back.

Doubts and fears were creeping into his mind.

“Feeling intimidated,” Turnbull said.

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He felt like he had to prove himself after Tommy John surgery.

“All those things that I haven’t felt so long,” he said. “It’s just some of those old demons you have to fight.”

His arm was fine. Certainly, not at his best. But not that far off.

More than anything, after all that time off, he had forgotten how hard this game can be.

How tough you have to be. How your brain has to be razor-sharp.

“I forgot how much mental discipline I have to have,” he said.

Dealing with demons

After getting yanked, Turnbull started to study videotape of his performance.

“I was like, ‘what the heck just happened?’ ” Turnbull said. “That was the most embarrassing thing I’ve ever experienced, and I was really upset. It was so embarrassing. I can’t pitch like that ever again. That was the worst I’ve ever pitched, so that was a big letdown.”

He has made some mechanical adjustments.

But more than that, he has made mental adjustments.

“I’m going to really enjoy it,” he said. “I’m really good. I don’t care. I’m coming at you. Not overthinking things, worrying about worst case scenario. I was putting so much pressure on myself to prove myself, just stupid thoughts.”

He’s confident in this team.

Confident in this roster.

“We’re a good team,” Turnbull said. “We have a lot of heart. We’re a little scrappy at times. We got a lot of guys contribute. Now, we are our feeling a little bit looser. We’re feeling a little better. We’re here. We’re good. We’re ready.”

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Turnbull oozed confidence.

“I’m still good,” he said.

Suddenly, his old demons were gone.

And that razor-sharp mentality was back.

Contact Jeff Seidel: or follow him on Twitter @seideljeff.

To read Seidel’s recent columns, go to

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