Tigers' Turnbull puts stamp on bid for rotation spot, posting 5 scoreless innings

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
The Tigers' Josh Harrison watches his home run off Phillies starting pitcher Nick Pivetta during the third inning.

Clearwater, Fla. – It wasn’t really an audition for Tigers right-hander Spencer Turnbull. But you couldn’t blame him for treating it like one.

On the day that Michael Fulmer confirmed he would have season-ending Tommy John surgery, Turnbull, who made his big-league debut last September, padded his case for replacing him in the rotation.

Turnbull, against what likely will be the Phillies' regular lineup, including Bryce Harper, went five scoreless innings, giving up just three singles and helping the Tigers to a 3-1 Grapefruit League win Wednesday.

"It was definitely in my head," Turnbull said of trying to cement his rotation bid. "I tried not to think about it much. I just knew if I do well, I have a good shot at winning the job. So I was trying to do everything I could to put myself in position."

BOX SCORE: Tigers 3, Phillies 1

His two-seam (sinker) and four-seam fastballs were popping between 94-96 mph. He also mixed in a curveball and a slider effectively. He struck out seven, including Harper, whom he got swinging at a 1-2 slider in the first inning.

"He faced a front-line lineup and just wasn't intimidated," said Tigers bench coach Steve Liddle, who managed the club in place of Ron Gardenhire (cortisone injection in his neck). "And he threw strikes. Lot of times a young guy like that, in a situation like that, tends to over throw and lose command. But he just went right after them.

"When a player does that, he kind of makes the decision for you."

Turnbull gave up a pair of hits in the fourth inning, including Harper’s first hit of the spring, but still got out of the inning in three batters. Credit center fielder JaCoby Jones with an assist for that.

Jean Segura singled to open the inning and Harper ripped a 2-1 fastball into center field. Segura tried to go first to third, but Jones put a strong throw right to the bag, right to the glove of third baseman Niko Goodrum, who barely had to move to tag out Segura.

Then J.T. Realmuto hit a liner at shortstop Jordy Mercer, who doubled up Harper at first base.

"There's always room for improvement," Turnbull said. "I could tell you several things I missed today. I got very fortunate on some plays and my fielders helped me out on a few.

"But I'm happy. I can't expect perfection. I feel like I've done about as much as I can do to put myself in position. The rest is out of my hands."

Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Spencer Turnbull delivers to the Philadelphia Phillies during the first inning.

Turnbull needed just 66 pitches and faced just one batter over the minimum through five innings. Of his 40 strikes, 13 were swings and misses.

Turnbull's excitement for this opportunity, though, is tempered with some compassion for Fulmer.

"It's tough," he said. "You feel terrible for a teammate, a great guy and obviously a great player. It's hard to think about my opportunity and be excited for that situation.

"But injuries happen in baseball. It's part of the game. It's an opportunity and I am going to do my best to take advantage of it."

Still, it is somewhat bittersweet.

"I wish Michael all the best," Turnbull said. "I hope he gets as healthy as he's ever been, and quickly. I want to be the best. I want to beat the best and I want to beat out the best. 

"I don't want to get something by default."

Liddle, who said roster decisions were above his pay grade, offered some perspective.

"You can get fooled a lot in spring training," he said. "You can get fooled in the month of April and you can get fooled in the month of September when the league gets diluted  with call-ups.

"You have to assess what your eyes are seeing. Is he getting No. 69 out or is he getting No. 16 out. Those are the things you look for. He's definitely put his best foot forward."

Turnbull was asked if he felt he was ready to take the ball every fifth day in the Major Leagues.

"I think I'm ready," he said. "I don't know what else I've got to do to show them that I am ready. But I feel ready. It'll be a new experience for me, for sure. But I don't know what I could do anywhere else to get more ready.

"I got a little taste of it (last season). I am as ready as I am going to feel. Throw me in the fire and see how I do."

Game bits 

Second baseman Josh Harrison had a productive day at the plate. He lined a home run off Phillies starter Nick Pivetta in the third inning. Pivetta had struck out five of the first nine batters he faced.

In the sixth, Harrison singled home Jones. Jones had walked, stole second uncontested and then challenged the arm of Andrew McCutchen in shallow left and scored easily, without a slide.

... Miguel Cabrera, who walked and flew out to right, ended his day with an RBI single to right in the sixth inning.  

... Reed Garrett, a right-handed reliever the Tigers took in the Rule 5 draft, pitched a scoreless sixth, but gave up a run in the seventh.

... Right-hander Victor Alcantara got four outs and non-roster invitee Jose Cisneros closed it out, featuring 97- and 98-mph fastballs. "You've got to look at a guy like that," Liddle said of Cisneros. "These guys don't just walk in off the street. It's not just the radar gun, but the swings they are taking off of him. They're not healthy swings; they're more defensive swings. That's what you are looking for with a guy coming out of the pen."

VerHagen ready

Tigers reliever Drew VerHagen returned to the mound Tuesday in Bradenton after missing nearly two weeks with an inflamed nerve in his right shoulder. He gave up a double and struck out two, but more importantly, there was no residual discomfort.

“It feels really good,” he said of his arm. “It’s just a matter of getting synced up with my mechanics and stuff. I knew we pretty much knocked it all out with the rest and the anti-inflammatories.”

VerHagen, who is expected to be one of the Tigers’ late-inning set-up men, is scheduled to pitch another inning on Thursday. He is on track to be ready for the regular-season opener.

“It’s just a matter of getting back in the game and getting my stuff sharpened up a little bit,” he said. “I’ll be ready for sure. It sounds like they (the club) think I’ll be ready, too. I will throw a couple more times and be on my normal schedule.”

Twitter @cmccosky