Minneapolis — Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire talked before Tuesday's game about what’s left on his to-do list over these final six games.
He talked about further evaluating Christin Stewart in left field and Dawel Lugo at second base — two players getting their first taste of the big leagues who could be in the mix for regular roles next season. He also talked about this night’s starting pitcher, Spencer Turnbull, who will have a shot at winning a rotation spot in 2019.
“His last two starts are big,” he said.
And Turnbull didn’t disappoint, pitching six strong innings, holding the fort until the Tigers posted four runs in the top of the eighth inning to beat the Minnesota Twins, 4-2, on Tuesday.
"He's kind of the unsung hero of the game," said catcher James McCann, whose heroics were more overt. "He doesn't get the win or the loss, but he kept us in this game when there was no margin for error and gave us a chance to win."
Another rookie, shortstop Harold Castro, getting his first big-league start, ignited the four-run eighth, leading off against Twins side-arming right-hander Trevor Hildenberger with his first big-league hit.
"That felt really good, really good," Castro said. "I was just trying to get on base so we could tie the game up."
Castro stole second ahead of a walk to Stewart. Nick Castellanos followed, after a fierce duel with Hildenberger, with an RBI single to center to tie the score.
Former Twin Niko Goodrum was up next and he untied it with another RBI single.
James McCann then stepped in against right-handed reliever Trevor May. McCann was in a 1-for-22 slump and he quickly got into a two-strike hole. But he fought his way out of it and lashed a two-run double into the corner in right field to put the Tigers up 4-1.
"It just goes to show that you can't give in," McCann said. "I had 3 1/2 bad at-bats in this game and when I fell behind in the count 1-2, honestly I was just doing everything I could to battle and try to put the ball in play and hoped it would find a hole.
"Thank God, it found a big hole."
The Twins didn’t go quietly. Against Joe Jimenez in the eighth, they scratched out a run on three singles. Jimenez, at 30 pitches, left with the bases loaded and two outs. Alex Wilson came in and ended the inning, getting Logan Forsythe to fly out to center.
McCann made a run-saving block on a 1-2 pitch in the dirt.
"That's my job," McCann said. "Your pitcher has to have trust that he can put the ball in the dirt right there and try to get the hitter to chase."
Closer Shane Greene walked Joe Mauer with two outs in the ninth, but struck out Jorge Polanco on three pitches to earn his 32nd save.
About Turnbull, though. Just six days ago this Twins team beat him up, six runs in four innings, spoiling his first big-league start. Different story this time.
"I feel really good," he said. "I feel like I got the monkey off my back now."
The start was ominous. He gave up a run two batters into the game on a lead-off single by Mauer and, after a wild pitch, an RBI double to Polanco.
He went 3-1 on Mauer and Polanco ambushed a 3-0 pitch.
"I was upset with myself," Turnbull said. "Not angry, just frustrated that I gave up that run. I felt like if I executed my pitches, that wouldn't have happened."
He didn’t cower. He came back and won a 10-pitch battle with No. 3 hitter Jake Cave, striking him out with a four-seam fastball after Cave had fouled off four straight pitches.
"The impressive part for me, his first start didn't go the way he wanted to and then the first two guys immediately, bang-bang," McCann said. "I saw him take a step off the mound, take a deep breath and get back on there.
"And Cave battled. It was a 10-pitch at-bat and he made Turnbull work for it. But he got that first strikeout and after that you could kind of see him, 'OK, I can do this.' "
He followed up the Cave strikeout by getting Robbie Grossman on three pitches and Tyler Austin on four.
It was a 28-pitch first inning, but instead of exhausting him, it seemed to rejuvenate him. He scattered four singles and a walk over the next five innings and left with the Tigers down 1-0.
"After the first inning he was kind of irritated with himself, but after that he really settled in and started throwing the ball," Gardenhire said. "I guess he had a good talk with himself; no one else did. But he went out there with a vengeance.
"He used all of his pitches and the ball was really coming out of his hand. He got a lot of swings and misses. It was a really, really good performance by him, a good bounce-back from the last one. Now he sees he can do it."
Of his 99 pitches, 78 were fastballs. And he was featuring three varieties of them, with a velocity range of 89 to 96 mph, while mixing in a slow, biting curveball.
He threw 42 sinkers and got seven called strikes. He threw 26 four-seam fastballs and got nine swings and misses. And, he mixed in 10 cutters. So the six left-handed hitters in the Twins line-up saw sinkers that tailed away, cutters that dived in at their hands and a four-seamer that stayed up and on plane.
"What's interesting about him, a lot of sinker-ball pitchers can't throw the four-seam up at the top of the zone," McCann said. "A guy like Greeney, his strength is two-seam fastballs. You ask him to throw a four-seamer up and now you are asking him to go away from his strength.
"But Turnbull is a guy who one day he might not have his sinker, but he can live off that four-seamer. Today, the fact he was able to combo the two, as a hitter you are going to foul off a lot of pitches because you are expecting a four-seamer and it's a two-seamer, or you're expecting the two-seamer and you get a four-seamer."
Turnbull is scheduled to start again in the season finale Sunday in Milwaukee.