Apr. 22—DETROIT — On a chilly, 42-degree night, after losing 10 pounds and more than two weeks to the COVID-19 virus, Tigers right-hander Spencer Turnbull needed just one inning to shake off the rust in his 2021 debut.
Turnbull, who got put in COVID-19 protocol after his last spring training start on March 10, gave up a two-out, RBI double to Erik Gonzalez in the first inning of Game 2 Wednesday night.
Then he got busy.
Turnbull ended up breezing through five innings, allowing two hits and striking out six to help the Tigers earn a split of the doubleheader and snap a five-game losing skid with a 5-2 win over the Pirates.
“First inning was a little rough, but I felt like I was rolling after that,” Turnbull said. “I was happy with it. It’s always great fun to get a win.”
Turnbull dispatched 13 of the last 14 hitters he faced and he was lobbying to go back out for the sixth inning.
“The way he got into the game, giving up a few runners, high pitch-count (22) in inning one, and for him to make the adjustment and settle in,” manager AJ Hinch said. “He was strong enough to go out for the sixth.”
But the Tigers offense broke the game open with a three-run fifth inning. Turnbull’s longest rehab outing at the alternate site was 4.1 innings and he was at 62 pitches after five.
“I just didn’t want to have him sit for 30-35 minutes,” Hinch said. “But he could’ve given us a little more. I was really happy how he bounced back after that first inning.”
He blew threw the last four innings in 40 pitches, including a five-pitch fifth. Turnbull became the first pitcher in the big leagues this season to allow a run or fewer in five innings while throwing 62 pitches or less.
It’s been done just nine times in Tigers’ history, the last by Jordan Zimmermann, July 29, 2019.
“I haven’t known Spencer that long,” Hinch said. “But he seems to have a calm heartbeat in the middle of the competition. That’s what I’m learning about him. He can take some feedback.”
Turnbull started spotting his four-seam fastball (93-95 mph) better after the first, but his money pitch this night was his slider. He threw 21 of them, only three were put in play with an average exit velocity of 68.7 mph. He got six swings-and-misses on 12 swings with the slider.
“That pitch was really flat in Toledo last week,” Turnbull said. “But I figured something out with my hip load, I wasn’t quite getting to the top of my delivery and that’s where my power and load comes from and usually the spin is there when I’m doing that properly.”
Which he was from the minute he struck out Gregory Polanco with a slider to end the first with two runners on.
“That was really a go-to pitch for him,” Hinch said. “Seeing those funky swings from left-handed hitters and right-handed hitters tells me is was what it needs to do.”
Turnbull ended his night in style, too. He struck out Pirates lead-off hitter Adam Frazier on three pitches — a 94-mph fastball, 77-mph curve and 84-mph slider.
The only question was, would the Tigers get him any offense. They’d managed three hits in a 3-2 loss in Game 1, and they weren’t exactly jumping all over Pirates right-hander Miguel Yajure early in the nightcap.
They didn’t get on the board until the third inning when Niko Goodrum ambushed a first-pitch fastball (90 mph) and sent it into the visitors’ bullpen in left-center field. It was his second homer of the year, his first batting left-handed, and the ball left his bat with an exit velocity of 105.7 mph.
“We needed that,” Hinch said. “We needed somebody to give us a spark.”
Jonathan Schoop, who hadn’t had an extra-base hit all season, opened the fifth inning by pole-axing a change-up 403 feet into the left-field seats. The ball left his bat with an exit velocity of 106 mph.
“There was a three and a half-, four-week build-up of frustration that was taken out on that ball that went out to left field,” Hinch said. “But he’s been trending toward feeling better lately, doing a ton of work. I know he wanted to see some results. That was a big swing.”
Hinch, wanting to force more action in the fifth, gave Goodrum the steal sign at first base with one out and slumping rookie Akil Baddoo at the plate. It was technically a run-and-hit, and Baddoo, in an 0-for-15 skid, scored Goodrum from first with a double.
Willi Castro, who had two hits in the nightcap, singled home Baddoo to cap the three-run fifth inning. Harold Castro drove in the fifth run with a two-strike single in the sixth.
Right-hander Bryan Garcia worked the sixth inning and yielded a 419-foot home run to the first batter he faced, Phillip Evans. It was just the second homer Garcia has allowed in his young career.
Gregory Soto, dropping 98- and 99-mph sinkers, struck out two in a clean seventh to earn the save.
Hinch had shifted his defense for the ninth inning. He moved Goodrum from left field to shortstop. He moved Willi Castro from shortstop to second base and Harold Castro from second to first.
He did all that for one reason.
“I had (center fielder) Derek Hill for one day and I wanted to make sure that sucker was in center field roaming that big outfield out there,” Hinch said. “I trust my players. I trust Niko to be ready. I got four or five guys moving around for one guy. To get Derek Hill out there.
“That versatility I’ve been talking about since I got here paid off.”
Hill was up as the 27th man for the double-header. He was returned to the alternate site following the game.