Making sense of Spencer Turnbull's 'filthy' Detroit Tigers intrasquad outing

Evan Petzold
Detroit Free Press

Spencer Turnbull was perfect Thursday night at Comerica Park.

The Detroit Tigers right-hander faced 12 hitters and sent them all down in a four-inning, six-strikeout performance. His fastball teased 100 mph (he threw 96) late in the fourth, and he only needed 44 pitches to get the job done.

He expected something like this might happen.

That's quite the load of confidence for a pitcher who led the MLB with 17 losses — a crown nobody wants to wear — and possessed an uneasy 4.61 ERA. 

Well, this Turnbull, 27, is nothing like last year's outdated version. He sought help for his mental health and made personal strides away from the ballpark. He reinvented his diet to improve how he felt physically. And he's been quick to trust veteran catcher Austin Romine.

The combination gives Turnbull a significant swagger boost. Seeing the fruits of his labor on the mound makes every difficult turn he's endured that much sweeter.

"I definitely wanted to have a different mound presence," Turnbull said Thursday. "Guys have noticed and made comments, so the fact that other people are seeing that is evidence what I feel on the inside is definitely showing up on the outside, which is huge for me. I did work on a lot of things — mentally, emotionally, physically."

Detroit Tigers' Spencer Turnbull pitches during intrasquad action Thursday, July 16, 2020 at Comerica Park in Detroit.

When Turnbull walked off the mound Thursday, something didn't feel right. That's not how it should've ended, but that's the reality of these intrasquad games. So what did his performance really mean? The release of a sneak preview, that's what.

A taste of just how good this former second-rounder could be.

He mixed between his curveball, slider and moving fastball to help strikeout Willi Castro (twice), Cameron Maybin (twice), Harold Castro and Riley Greene. He easily pushed the upper 90s in the fourth inning, which ended up his last. Walking off the mound, the man looked like he could've made it another round.

[ Detroit Tigers intrasquad observations: Spencer Turnbull dominates ]

"Probably could've gone another inning or two," he said. "I definitely felt better from last week, sort of got a little gassed last week."

The Tigers, however, want to keep him healthy because they, too, believe this transformation Turnbull has undergone is going to work. 

To this point, he hasn't given them any reason to doubt. In four games and 11 innings this spring, he carried a 0.82 ERA, 0.72 WHIP, 13-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio and only one run allowed. The coronavirus then canceled spring training and nearly eliminated the full season. After months of living in the shadows, he got the call to return to Comerica Park.

He hasn't missed a beat.

Detroit Tigers' Spencer Turnbull pitches against the Pittsburgh Pirates during the first inning Wednesday, April 17, 2019 at Comerica Park in Detroit.

Turnbull had already met Romine in spring training, but they've grown leaps and bounds since returning from baseball's standstill. When Romine puts his finger down, he doesn't want to see Turnbull shake him off. 

"I don't want to see a bobblehead out there," Gardenhire said he recalls Romine explaining. "So you might see me sprinting out to the mound to tell him to just throw the ball and you've got great stuff."

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There's a lot on Romine's plate. After all, he's in charge of leading rookies and recent notable prospects while still focusing on himself. But just his presence has made an impact on Turnbull.

"Romi enjoyed working with him tonight and said his stuff was filthy," Gardenhire explained. "The ball was just jumping out of his hand, and we've seen that before. ... That's where we want to see him because this kid has got electric stuff."

[ Why Detroit Tigers' Spencer Turnbull looks ready for a breakout 2020 season ]

Understanding what could be is one thing, but knowing how to stay consistent, especially in a shortened 60-game season because of the virus, is an unventured challenge. Right now, Turnbull isn’t sure what he's going to do.

He does know every outing won't be perfect, but that doesn't mean he's not ready to discover what this new-look Turnbull has in store.

"I was able to execute more on the command side of it a lot better today," he said. "And more consistently."

Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold