Detroit Tigers pitcher Spencer Turnbull, formerly of Madison Central, throws during the first inning of a baseball game against the Kansas City Royals, Thursday, April 4, 2019, in Detroit.

Eight years ago, Spencer Turnbull, then a 12th_grader, was the third pitcher in the rotation for Madison Central. He pitched when the top two, Josh Laxer and Zack Irwin, did not.

Granted, Madison Central is a huge high school with lots of baseball tradition. Nevertheless, when you are number three on your high school pitching staff, you probably don’t expect to be a few years later where Turnbull was this past Thursday. And that is, on the mound at Comerica Park in Detroit, where the Tigers were playing the Kansas City Royals in their home opener.

The stadium was sold out. The temperature was 38, the chill factor much lower on a gusty day. So, you ask, how did this strapping Mississippi boy, a rookie, respond to the cold, the wind and the opening day pressure?

Glad you asked. Turnbull, a hard-throwing right-hander, struck out 10 over six innings and gave up only two earned runs in the Tigers’ 5-4 victory.

“It was awesome, a dream come true,” Turnbull told the media after the game. “It was the coolest feeling of my life so far.”

Rick Cleveland

Those who know him say that was about as much emotion, as much gushing, as you ever will hear from the 26-year-old Turnbull, who normally remains even keel and poker-faced no matter the situation at hand. And, sure enough, three days later, Turnbull was back to normal.

“It was an honor to pitch the home opener, although I’m not sure it’s something I earned,” he said by phone Sunday night. “That’s just the way the rotation fell. Still, it felt good. I didn’t have my best fastball but the breaking stuff was really working.”

By Sunday night, the surprising Tigers had won two more games and were at 7-3 on the season, in first place in the American League’s Central Division. Pitching has led the way. Tigers pitchers have combined for a 2.30 earned run average and have fanned 99 batters in 90 innings.

“It’s a good start, sure, but it doesn’t mean anything yet,” Turnbull said.

In two starts, Turnbull has fanned 15 batters over 11 innings, thus validating the confidence that Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire, the former Jackson Mets middle infielder, has shown in him.

Ron Gardenhire

Turnbull went to spring training this year, not knowing if he had much of a shot to make the Tigers rotation. All spring, Gardenhire kept talking about how electric Turnbull’s stuff was and that he might have to find a spot in the rotation for the red-headed rookie. But the Tigers had five starters penciled in and Turnbull would have been a sixth.

The math problem – five spots, six good starters – solved itself when Michael Fulmer, three years ago a Rookie of the Year, suffered an elbow injury that required surgery.

Fighting for a rotation spot was nothing new for Turnbull, going back to his Madison Central days when then-Jaguars coach Gregg Perry had what had to be one of the best pitching staffs in Mississippi high school history.

Laxer, the No. 1, would later star for Ole Miss. Irwin, the No. 2 and a left-hander, “probably had more talent than any of us,” Turnbull said.

Said Perry, now the assistant athletic director and golf coach at Germantown, “We just had an awesome group of pitchers. Spencer wasn’t your normal No. 3, that’s for sure. That was when his turn came.”

Truth be known, Turnbull was known more for his slugging and his prowess at first base than he was for his mound work. And, truth really be known, he was an even better student than he was baseball player. In fact, it was an academic scholarship – not a baseball scholarship – that landed Turnbull at Alabama.

The Crimson Tide didn’t know if they were getting a pitcher or a first baseman, but they knew they were getting a scholar.

What a pleasant surprise it must have been when Turnbull’s 88 mph fast ball at Madison Central turned into a 95 mph fastball at Alabama.

Just a few games into his freshman season Alabama coaches told Turnbull he wouldn’t be needing his bat any more. Since then, he has improved his breaking pitches, added a sinker and four-seam fastball that acts like a cutter and gained command of all, including a change-up.

Things are looking up – way, way up. This season, he makes only slightly higher than the big league minimum of $545,000 a year. But the average salary for a starting pitcher these days is $5.2 million and Turnbull’s stuff has been far better than average thus far.

No, Turnbull said, he hasn’t pinched himself.

Said he, “Not yet, I don’t want to pinch myself because I do feel like I am living a dream.”

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.