Walks, sloppy defense and Charlie Morton — a bad combination for Tigers

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit — There was electricity in Spencer Turnbull's talented right arm Wednesday night. His slider was biting, hard and late. His four-seam fastball was lively and his two-seamer was darting.

And the Tampa Bay Rays hitters stood there in the steady rain at Comerica Park, bats on shoulders, and patiently watched a good percentage of them miss the strike zone.

Christin Stewart pops out in the first inning.

"Look at that team over there, they don't swing — they don't chase pitches out of the zone," Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said after the Rays handed the Tigers their major league-leading sixth shutout loss of the season, 4-0. "A lot of teams will swing at those pitches and that helps (Turnbull).

"We say it all the time, he's effectively wild. But when a team can control the zone and stay in the zone, it becomes harder for him. He's got to learn who to and who not to."

BOX SCORE: Rays 4, Tigers 0

Turnbull lasted only five innings and it took him 92 pitches to get through that. His ball-strike ratio was an untenable 40-52.

"Not my best, it's a little frustrating," said Turnbull, who still induced 10 ground-ball outs and had four strikeouts. "I just felt like my stuff was really good tonight. I should've been able to go deeper in the game than I did.

"I just wasn't aggressive enough early on and got into a lot of deep counts. I had that one really long inning and it took more out of me than it should."

It's not like Turnbull was purposely nibbling the edges of the strike zone. He was struggling to channel and tame the movement of his pitches.

"Sometimes when my pitches have extra movement, it makes it hard for me to get it over the plate," he said. "And when guys aren't swinging at it, it's hard for me to dial it back.

"Then you get in trouble when you try to baby it in the zone and it gets smacked for a triple."

And with the Tigers facing Rays ace Charlie Morton, one of the stingiest right-handed pitchers in baseball, the margin for error was paper thin. 

"(Turnbull) was a little more erratic than usual," catcher John Hicks said. "He made some pitches just off the plate and they laid off. They were more patient than we thought they'd be and they made him work."

Two rough stretches ended up being fatal.

In the third inning, a three-pitch sequence led to the Rays' first run.

Austin Meadows, older brother of Tigers prospect Parker Meadows, hit a ball to the cutout in right-center field. He ended up turning a triple into a little-league home run when the relay throw from second baseman Harold Castro bounced past third baseman Dawel Lugo.

That was a precursor for what would be an ugly defensive night for the Tigers.

Yandy Diaz hit the next pitch off the wall in right, a long single. The next pitch after that, Turnbull plunked Brandon Lowe.

He regrouped from that, striking out Avisail Garcia and getting Willy Adames to ground out with the bases loaded. But after a clean fourth inning, Turnbull put himself back in the soup in the fifth.

With two outs and Diaz at first, he fell behind Garcia 3-0 and then threw a curveball on 3-1. Garcia was all over it, hitting it into the gap for an RBI double. Garcia would score on a single by Ji-Man Choi.

That was an embarrassment of run support for Morton. 

With seven efficient, shutout innings, he ran his personal win streak to 10 games dating to last August, and he’s unbeaten in 13 starts this season (7-0).

"That guy has a great arm," Gardenhire said. "He's tough."

While Turnbull needed 92 pitches to get 15 outs, Morton got through seven innings on 83 pitches. And as advertised, his curveball was diabolical. He threw it 28 times and got 10 swings and misses.

"It's big and it moves a little more than you expect it to," Hicks said.  "And it's so much slower than everything else he throws. He has a good, hard fastball and that curve looks like it just keeps going."

The Tigers scratched out five hits, but only twice did they get a runner into scoring position — both times it happened with two outs. Morton got Miguel Cabrera to ground out after a two-out double by Nick Castellanos in the first inning.

Then, after Brandon Dixon and Castro singled with two outs in the fourth, Morton struck out Hicks.

But Morton aside, this was an ugly game for the Tigers, the kind Gardenhire loathes. Tigers pitchers walked eight batters and the defense committed three errors and a couple other misplays.

JaCoby Jones overran a ball in center field, turning a single into two bases. Lefty reliever Blaine Hardy picked off Adames at first base in the seventh, but Dixon’s throw to second base went into left field.

The Rays scored their fourth run in the eighth inning without a hit. Reliever Zac Reininger walked two in the inning, but the Tigers botched two double-play balls. The first, Castro bobbled a hard-hit grounder at second and could only get the force.

Then, with runners at first and second and one out, Lowe hit a routine ground ball to shortstop. Niko Goodrum made a clean through to second, but Castro threw the relay past Dixon at first. Guillermo Heredia was able to score from second.

Walks and errors, cause and effect.

"That's exactly the conversation we had," Gardenhire said. "The pace of the game was definitely slow and we've talked to a couple different guys. We're standing out there a lot playing defense. Ball one, ball two, walk too many people and then you make errors.

"That's what ends up happening. When you play long innings on defense, you get a little complacent, you get a little tired on your legs. And then you end up making mental mistakes which leads to physical mistakes."

Twitter: @cmccosky