Spencer Turnbull was struggling against the Pirates. Here's how he fixed his problem

Evan Petzold
Detroit Free Press

Detroit Tigers right-hander Spencer Turnbull spoke to himself.

A lot.

Way too many times to count, way too many words to comprehend. He chattered out loud most in the seventh inning. He later admitted he didn't have his best stuff, but it was obvious. Understand this: He was really good, just not at his best. But there he was, trotting back out to become the first Tigers starter this season to make it into the seventh.

"He's always talking," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "He's got his routine. He runs off the field, goes down the runway, we don't see him, the inning ends, we hear the towel popping about three times, and then he comes flying out of the dugout.

"My job is to warn people."

Tigers pitcher Spencer Turnbull delivers a pitch against the Pirates during the first inning on Sunday, Aug. 9, 2020, in Pittsburgh.

[ Why Turnbull looks ready for a breakout 2020 season ]

Turnbull used a combination of his slider, curveball, fastball and sinker — with an emphasis on the fastball and sinker — in the seventh to retire Erik Gonzalez, Jarrod Dyson and John Ryan Murphy in order, using a vital adjustment he made early in the game. For a pitcher who claimed to have not had his best stuff, Turnbull took another step forward in Sunday's 2-1 win.

But Gardenhire can tell you about that.

"I thought he was filthy," Gardenhire said. "I thought his ball was moving all over. ... I thought he had great stuff today. I thought that glove (from catcher Austin Romine) was getting knocked backward. I was impressed."

Turnbull, picked in the second round of the 2014 draft (No. 63 overall), finished with one run allowed on five hits and two walks with four strikeouts in seven frames. He launched 92 pitches, of which 52 went for strikes.

[ Making sense of Turnbull's 'filthy' Tigers intrasquad outing ]

The 27-year-old said his command was not great. His slider did not bite. His changeup floated. His sinker moved well, but too laterally. His fastball got knocked around, at least a few times. And his only decent curveball hit Colin Moran in the foot. 

"I didn't have my best stuff today," Turnbull said. "It was pretty clear early on that I didn't. Just, stuff was really flat."

Tigers pitcher Spencer Turnbull pitches against the Pirates in the first inning on Sunday, Aug. 9, 2020, in Pittsburgh.

Indeed, Turnbull struggled in the first inning, allowing a single and walk, then opened with the third with a walk and a single. And in the fourth? He hit Moran, who then advanced to third on consecutive ground-ball outs, then tossed a 95 mph fastball down the middle to Jarrod Dyson for an RBI single.

But after that, there wasn't much concern. 

He struck out Bryan Reynolds, swinging, on a slider in a clean sixth inning that lasted 11 pitches. He sent the Pirates down in order again in the seventh, also on 11 pitches.

[ It took Spencer Turnbull 427 days to get a win. Is he happy? 'I don't really care' ]

"Surprised I didn't feel good today because I felt unbelievable throwing the ball yesterday," Turnbull said. "Honestly, slightly unfortunate that I didn't have it, but who knows. I'm always happy to go deep into a game, keep the one or less runs and give the team a chance to win."

Turnbull succeeded by changing his approach, shifting from power pitching to keeping his opponents confused between his fastball and sinker; he was still throwing his fastball more than 40% of the time, as he has done since the start of the 2019 season. But on Sunday, he pared it with the sinker rather than his slider; after opening the season using the slider 21.3% of the time, he used it 15.2% (14 times) Sunday. Likewise, the sinker that had a 19.0% usage was at 30.4% (28 times) Sunday.

"They don't know which direction it's going to go, whether it's going to cut or sink," Turnbull said. "Just using that. It's not as good as it normally, but it was enough to get it off the barrel."

The soft contact that produced resulted in 11 groundouts and two flyouts. He realized his problem early: "Can't blow it by them, snap it off real nasty (or) make them swing and miss."

So he threw Pittsburgh off balance and guided Detroit through seven innings, something he only did twice in his 17-loss campaign last year — without his best stuff. The outing dropped Turnbull's ERA to 2.00 this season with a 1.000 WHIP and 18 strikeouts in 18 innings. And the 8-5 Tigers were able to sneak out of Pittsburgh with their first road sweep since 2018.

"I don't think I would have been able to do that last year," Turnbull said. "That's a testament to the mental side of the game that I've worked really hard on.

"You know, how to find a way to get the job done when your 'Plan A' isn't going well."

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