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Niyo: Despite impressive rookie season Turnbull is caught in Tigers’ funk

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Detroit — This is the hardest part now.

As the losses keep piling up and the crowds keep dwindling and the focus shifts completely to football around here, this is the real challenge for the Tigers, or what’s left of them. It’s about sifting through the detritus of a season that’s now officially a guaranteed failure — Ron Gardenhire’s club lost its 82nd game well ahead of schedule Thursday, 7-2 to the Seattle Mariners before a crowd of 19,440 at Comerica Park — and trying to find the positives.

Tigers pitcher Spencer Turnbull ranks last among qualified starters (118th out of 118) in run support this year.

And that’s difficult to do, whether you’re a veteran manager left grumbling about his players not running to first on a dropped third strike or a future Hall of Famer trying to find his power stroke while playing on one leg.

Asked about his latest rocket launch — a 417-foot solo shot over the bullpen in left field — Miguel Cabrera, who owns a .333/.403/.600 slash line the last 15 games with a revamped swing, mostly just shrugged Thursday.

“Can’t be satisfied right now,” he said. “We’re losing too many games.”

But perhaps no one feels that quite like Thursday’s starting pitcher, Spencer Turnbull, who took the mound looking for his first win since May 31 and left after five innings knowing that simply wasn’t going to happen. Again.

Turnbull has been one of the few bright spots for the Tigers this season, yet his team has lost in each of his last 10 starts. His record fell to 3-11 on the season Thursday, and, almost inexplicably, the 26-year-old rookie is now winless in all 13 of his starts at Comerica Park dating back to last year’s brief September cameo.

All this despite the fact that he has been the Tigers’ second-best starting pitcher behind Matthew Boyd in 2019, even leading all Detroit starters on the roster with a 3.75 ERA.

Thursday, you could see why, as the right-hander had the Mariners flailing early.

Turnbull stuck out the side in the first inning, finishing off each of the first three hitters in Seattle’s lefty-loaded lineup with different pitches: Curveball, fastball, slider. He came back in the second and picked up right where he’d left off, getting hot-hitting Kyle Seager swinging with a curveball in the dirt. He allowed a single and a walk to the next two batters, then finished the inning with two more strikeouts.

And by the time he’d made it through the order, all seven outs he’d recorded came via strikeouts – six of them swinging.

‘I felt sharp’

“I felt sharp,” said Turnbull, who was making his third start since returning from the injured list with an upper back strain. “My breaking balls were both pretty good today early.”

But then they weren’t — a couple of them, at least — in the third inning, as back-to-back doubles from Omar Narvaez and Seager sparked a three-run outburst that ultimately spoiled Turnbull’s afternoon. He hung two breaking balls — the one to Seager was particularly galling — and got punished for it. And for what it’s worth, an admittedly “frustrated” rookie was the first one to say it when he got to the dugout after that 27-pitch inning.

“He came in and said, ‘That’s my bad. I’m supposed to throw that ball in the dirt,’” Gardenhire said of Turnbull, who eventually exited after five innings, allowing six hits and those three runs while striking out eight.

“But other than that, his stuff was moving — it was jumping around pretty good — and we just offensively didn’t get too much.”

That’s nothing new for this team, of course. But particularly when Turnbull’s on the mound. The rookie ranks last among qualified major-league starters (118th out of 118) in run support, as the Tigers have scored just 58 runs in his 22 starts, or 2.64 runs per game. Detroit’s record is now just 6-16 when Turnbull takes the mound, and the team has scored two runs or fewer in his last 10 starts.

He’s not about to use that as an excuse, though.

“My job is to get outs and give up as few runs as possible,” he said. “If I’m giving up three runs in an inning, that’s not me doing my job. So that’s what I’m focused on.”

Still, it does help put some things in perspective here as the Tigers look to the future and we all try to figure out which of the players we’re watching now are worth keeping an eye on moving forward.

Here’s a hint: Not many. But Turnbull does appear to be one of them, and with only a handful of outings remaining – maybe less, with an innings limit looming and Gardenhire talking about piggy-backing starts soon – it’d be encouraging to see him string together a few more solid outings before he gets shut down.

Starts with the same sort of stuff we saw Thursday — he hit 96 mph with his fastball and finished with 14 swing-and-miss strikes — only with better efficiency.

Maybe that’s asking too much given his history. But for now, Turnbull looks like a lock to be a part of the rotation again to start next season, even with some of the young arms — Matt Manning, Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal — rising in the minors.

Command issues

And if Turnbull, a 2014 second-round pick, can solve some of his command issues — the kind of issues that often send arms like his to the bullpen eventually — he might have a longer-term future as a starter here as well.

In the meantime, the difficulty is in separating the good from all the bad, and finding the individual progress amid the collective malaise.

“I try to separate as best I can,” Turnbull said. “I like to look and see if I’m getting better at something or worse at something and modify that or give myself a pat on the back when I need it.

“But the results speak for themselves in a game like this. Everything’s about results here (in the majors), so if you’re winning or losing or not doing your job, that’s part of it.”

And that’s what makes a season like this so challenging. Especially when you’re a rookie who can’t win for losing. @johnniyo