‘Life is not easy’: Tigers’ Turnbull staying patient as he grinds through early struggles

Detroit News

Detroit — Spencer Turnbull took a step forward on Sunday.

The stat line may not show it and you may not want to believe it. But, that doesn’t matter.

What matters is Turnbull believes it.

“It’s getting there,” Turnbull said after he labored through four innings and 83 pitches, allowing two earned runs in the Tigers’ 5-3 loss in the series finale against Baltimore. “I’m definitely frustrated with the results, but I’m not upset with my process.”

Every arm responds differently after Tommy John surgery. Some take longer than others to rebuild arm speed and strength, to recapture the fluidity and consistency of their mechanics, to regain velocity on and command of their pitches, to rebuild their stamina.

Turnbull had his surgery on July 29, 2021. The first competitive innings he threw post-surgery were in spring training. He didn’t get the benefit of any rehab starts. Straight into the fire.

“I’m really hard on myself,” Turnbull said. “I expected to come back and be in no-hitter form. But, this is still my first chance to build up innings. I didn’t have any outings last year to get some of this stuff out of the way. I’m not trying to make excuses. I’m just trying to be realistic with my expectations for myself.

“I hoped it would be an easier process than it is. But, life’s not easy.”

There have been flashes, encouraging flashes. He beat the hard-hitting Blue Jays in Toronto, limiting them to one run over five innings. In his next start, he blanked Cleveland over five innings before Jose Ramirez ruined his night with a three-run homer in the sixth.

Even Sunday, he threw a 96-mph sinker to Ryan Mountcastle in the first inning. He was snapping firm, 87-mph sliders in the first two innings. His changeup, a pitch that has always been spotty for him, looked like it might be a useful weapon early.

But, as has happened in all six starts, his arm lost some of its fire as the game went on. A 32-pitch second inning got him on Sunday.

“It was labor-intensive, for sure,” he said. “Before the surgery, I felt like I could handle that a lot easier. Now, I’m still trying to get my stamina back. I don’t want to make excuses. It is what it is. I still have to keep my pitch count down and get ahead of guys.

“It’s not like I’m nibbling or trying to pitch around guys. I’m just misfiring.”

Take his changeup usage as an example. The Orioles stacked their lineup with six left-handed hitters and he used the changeup effectively in the first inning. But, in the second inning, he started losing command of the pitch.

“It was moving a lot but I kept missing arm-side (away from left-handed hitters),” he said. “I was already getting into bad counts. I felt like I wasn’t giving up hard contact with the slider, so I stayed with that. I just had more conviction to land it for a strike.”

Still, eliminating the changeup against that lineup was a win for the Orioles. He eliminated the curveball, too, after left-handed hitters Cedric Mullins and Ryan O’Hearn hit two-strike curveballs for singles.

Turnbull ended up using primarily his four-seam fastball and slider. He threw 43 four-seamers ranging in velocity from 88-95 mph. That fluctuation in velocity is an indicator of Turnbull’s battle for consistency and stamina.

And yet, even though the three four-seamers the Orioles put in play were hit hard (100 mph average exit velocity), he still got six swinging strikes (on 14 swings) and 13 called strikes with it.

Flashes.

“As the stress and fatigue set in, I was missing more and more,” Turnbull said. “It’s something different every week. One week, the fastball is good but the slider is bad. Then the slider is good but I’m missing with the fastball arm-side high. The ball was coming out great early. It was the best I felt so far warming up.

“But, then a lot of stressful pitches early. I’m still getting used to handling that workload. Definitely frustrating. I just have to not look at the results because if I look at the results, I’ll get pretty mad and start breaking stuff.”

It’s hard, unless you’ve gone through what he’s going through, to fathom the depths of that frustration. Turnbull spent four years in the minor leagues trying to harness the fire in his gifted right arm. The movement he has on four pitches is so dynamic, he struggled to keep it in the strike zone. He made 30 starts in 2019 and even though he had 17 losses on his ledger, he was an uncomfortable at-bat for big league hitters — and not just because he led baseball 16 hit batsmen.

He started to put it together in 2020 and it culminated with his no-hitter in Seattle on May 18, 2021. Two weeks later, his ulnar collateral ligament frayed and he had to start all over.

“It’s frustrating knowing what I can be,” Turnbull said. “But, I also have to be realistic with myself and give myself some grace there. I just want to pick it up and help the boys win. That’s the most important thing … I hate the results right now, but I’m trying to stay process-oriented.

“I’m getting better, slowly but surely. I think we’re close.”

Twitter: @cmccosky

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