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“I haven’t,” he says. “We still do that. It’s like, the last fun I got. It really is. It’s a joy.”Turnbull, a 50-something paper supply salesman from Mississippi, waited for Spencer to exit the visitors clubhouse in Toronto.
His son — the rookie right-hander who won a Detroit Tigers’ starting rotation spot this spring with the best performance of any starter — was making his season debut the next day. It went fine, save a rocky fourth inning, but dad, who has caught his son since day one, found a few tweaks.
But his secret — stashed in the minor leagues for six seasons before debuting with the Tigers last September — is starting to get out. It’s born from that movement, which was evident at an early age — sometimes to his frustration — and shows in some shin bruises his dad still wears.
“When that ball moves, it’s kind of scary sometimes, because you just have to get out of the way,” Jim says. “I just sit there, put up the target and if I see something I can’t handle, I just ‘whoop,’ get out of the way, let it go and hit the net. I’ve seen it my whole life.”
And on Opening Day against the Kansas City Royals, in front of a packed crowd at Comerica Park on Thursday, Tigers fans will see it for themselves.
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He grew up in a small town called Demopolis, Ala., so the irony in which Turnbull describes his pitches is not lost.“My pitches can be like a box of chocolates sometimes,” he said. “Like Forrest Gump said, ‘You never know what you’re going to get.’”
Like Gump, Turnbull attended the University of Alabama, where his all-around athletic upbringing blossomed into a potential professional career as a freshman with the Crimson Tide.
Turnbull had long since hit his growth spurt, growing from 5-foot-8 to 6-foot-2 between his eighth and ninth grade years, and when he returned to the mound after a broken wrist his junior year of high school just outside Jackson, Miss. — his family relocated for Jim’s job — his 90 mph fastball earned him a full-ride to Alabama.
Detroit Tigers pitcher Spencer Turnbull signs autographs during TigerFest at Comerica Park, Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019.Detroit Tigers pitcher Spencer Turnbull signs autographs during TigerFest at Comerica Park, Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019. (Photo: Kirthmon F. Dozier, Detroit Free Press)
Turnbull, who is as mild-mannered as they come, was introduced to the bright lights that season, pitching against two-time defending national champion South Carolina early in the season.
“Every time he’s doing something in front of a bigger audience or bigger stress situation, he shows up,” Jim said.That night, Turnbull was facing Michael Roth, a highly-ranked draft prospect.
That was the moment,” Turnbull said. “Being on national television, I had never done that before and just having that kind of a special game, I was like, ‘Alright, this is something that can be very special.’”
Turnbull had no clue the Tigers were eying to take him in the second round of the 2014 draft. He had heard through various channels that his stock had fallen to the third round, so when he was sitting on his couch watching the draft with his parents, the selection was a shock.
Five years later, the movement that area scout Bryson Barber saw up close has made him the key young Tigers’ pitcher to watch this season.
Since his late-season debut in 2018, he has been a favorite of manager Ron Gardenhire, who told the Tigers’ front office he would go with a six-man starting rotation to open the season just to get him on the team. Last season’s few appearances — as underwhelming as they may have been in the stat column — were impressive: Turnbull, who appears quiet on the surface, has a certain rage inside of him on the mound, especially when the lights are on.
Asked what makes him tick, Turnbull said, “Giving up hits. It pisses me off. That always gives me an extra bump of adrenaline, but I try to keep myself even keel. I don’t want to get too high or too low. I want to be consistent when I’m out there, and I think that’s the hardest thing to be as a pitcher. My face might look pretty chill, but on the inside, I’ll get pretty fired up.”
Turnbull started to make waves last season, ascending from Double-A Erie to Triple-A Toledo, where he struck out 12 batters one night in what Mud Hens manager Doug Mientkiewicz called one of the best pitching performances he’s seen.
The difference between the Turnbull now and that of a year ago is that he’s begun to trust that movement, and learn what it’s going to do on any given day.
“The biggest thing I took out of the spring was probably being more aggressive with my movement,” he said. “Not trying to be too fine with it. It might be different every day, but just having the feel for what it’s going to be. It just depends on the day.”