Detroit Tigers' Spencer Turnbull powered up by new mantra: 'Less is more'

Evan Petzold
Detroit Free Press

Detroit Tigers right-hander Spencer Turnbull pumped his fist to the noise of a fake crowd in an empty Comerica Park on Tuesday night. He had just struck out Anthony Rizzo swinging, with a 95 mph fastball above the strike zone, setting the stage for his escape from a fifth-inning jam.

Three pitches later, the inning was over, as Javier Baez lined out to first baseman Jeimer Candelario to end the threat.

Five days earlier, Turnbull felt embarrassed. He couldn't make it out of the second inning in an Aug. 20 9-0 loss to the Chicago White Sox. But this time, against the other team that calls Chicago home, he was the one dealing a scoreless performance, which he carried until his removal with two outs in the sixth inning.

[ What Detroit Tigers' Spencer Turnbull wishes he could've changed in poor outing ]

The Tigers (12-16) bullpen finished off the 7-1 win against the Chicago Cubs, and for the first time since Turnbull's Aug. 9 start against the Pittsburgh Pirates, manager Ron Gardenhire got a stellar outing from a starting pitcher.

In 5⅔ shutout innings, Turnbull only allowed three hits and three walks. He also struck out five, thanks to a fastball that hit 98 mph for the first time in four years, improved command and a new mantra: Less is more.

"When I've been letting guys get on base, I started trying to do way too much," Turnbull said. "My delivery started to quicken up, trying to worry about runners. Caused some bad habits to creep in, so this week, I focused a lot more on just slowing everything down mechanically, not trying to throw so hard."

Tigers pitcher Spencer Turnbull pitches against the Cubs during the fourth inning at Comerica Park on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020.

The 27-year-old showed that approach in the fifth inning after walking David Bote and Ian Happ on six pitches apiece. As the left-handed Rizzo, a career .271 hitter with 223 homers, stepped into the box, Turnbull reminded himself to relax.

He repeated to himself: Less is more.

"Gonna be my mantra for the rest of my life," said Turnbull, who struck out Rizzo with one slider and two fastballs for strikes. "As soon as I slow down, stay within my delivery and don't try to muscle up on everything, I'm able to stay closed longer, my arm quickens up, the ball comes out better.

"It felt way easier. I was throwing harder tonight, but I wasn't trying to throw harder because I was staying within my delivery and not flying open or opening my hips too early or pulling my left shoulder open — whatever causes me to have the lack of fastball command. That's what gets me in trouble."

He relied heavily on the four-seam fastball, throwing it 53.6% of the time, while mixing in the occasional sinker (23.7%), slider (13.4%), changeup (6.2%) and three curveballs. The fastball produced 14 called strikes and three whiffs. His only self-critique was that he wasn't able to get swings and misses on the slider — only managing two whiffs and two called strikes.

"Kind of the same thing last week in Chicago," Turnbull said. "I felt like I threw good sliders, and they're just spitting on them like they saw them really easily, so I don't know. It may just be easier for guys to pick it up right now. I need to be able to command it in the zone. The more I show I can command it in and out, I'll start getting swings again."

Tigers pitcher Spencer Turnbull celebrates as he walks off the field after the top of second inning against the Cubs at Comerica Park on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020.

But Turnbull had little else to complain about.

Well, there was Gardenhire's decision not to let him finish the sixth inning. Instead, the manager called on Bryan Garcia out of the bullpen, and he delivered with a three-pitch strikeout of Victor Caratini to end the frame.

Still, Turnbull wishes he could've finished it off.

"I'm not gonna argue with (Gardenhire) for too long," he said. "That's his decision to make, and Bryan did a phenomenal job. But, yeah, I wanted that hitter. I had more than enough left to get one more hitter. I don't think there's much of a difference between 97 pitches and 102 pitches."

That desire to stay on the mound stems from Turnbull's competitiveness, which  has led to his improvement from a 4.61 ERA and an MLB-leading 17 losses last season to a 2.97 ERA, 3-2 record and 26 strikeouts in 30⅓ innings this season.

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

Turnbull has tossed more innings than anyone on the roster, lasting into the second half of games in four of his six starts. With right-hander Michael Fulmer and rookie lefty Tarik Skubal on pitch limits, his presence has given a slight relief to the Tigers' well-worked bullpen.

And successes like Tuesday will further cement his status at the top of the rotation with 32 games remaining this season. 

"His stuff is really good," Gardenhire said. "If he can just maintain the mental part of it, not overthink things and watch the catcher put down the sign (with) no shaking, just throw the ball where the catcher wants it — that's when he's the best.

"You've got to step up and show people you can do some things."

Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here's how you can gain access to our most exclusive Detroit Tigers content