PITTSBURGH - The Nationals would like Jacob Turner to take over as their No. 5 starter for the immediate future. Circumstances and priorities have prevented that from happening, with the right-hander needed to help stabilize the least-stable bullpen in the majors.
Tonight, though, Turner was back on the mound for the first inning, allowed to stay on the mound as long as his arm and results would allow it. And while the end result wasn’t positive - the Nationals suffered a 6-1 loss to the Pirates - the 25-year-old did acquit himself well through the majority of his outing and appears to have earned the right to be the Nats’ fifth starter again the next time they need one.
Turner matched Pirates ace Gerrit Cole for five innings, pumping out 95 mph fastballs and posting zeros on the scoreboard. He surrendered only three singles to that point, only one of them well-struck.
“Turner was matching him,” manager Dusty Baker said of his starter’s performance against Cole, one of the best young hurlers in the National League.
Baker wasn’t going to pull Turner after five innings, not in a scoreless game and not when the righty was cruising along. But deep down, the veteran skipper had to wonder how much gas was left in the tank for a guy who had made only one previous big league start this season (April 24 at Colorado) and hadn’t thrown more than 84 pitches.
Everybody got their answer during the bottom of the sixth, which proved the turning point in this game.
Turner walked John Jaso to lead off the inning. He got Andrew McCutchen to ground into a fielder’s choice, but then plunked David Freese in the back on an 0-2 pitch.
That set the stage for Josh Bell, who after getting ahead in the count fouled off a 3-0 fastball on the outside corner, then crushed a 3-1 fastball down the pipe deep to right for a three-run, game-altering homer.
“I didn’t feel like I was tired,” said Turner, who walked another batter after the home run and was pulled with his pitch count at 89. “I was ahead of Jaso, didn’t put him away. I got the groundout of McCutchen. I was ahead of Freese, hit him. Obviously Bell hit the home run; everybody’s going to look at that. But how those guys got on base, stuff like that just can’t happen. I’ve got to be better in that situation. That’s really it.”
The sixth inning wasn’t pretty, but the Nationals will look at the previous five - not to mention the previous month of work - and emerge with positive reviews of Turner.
“He might have tired, but we really couldn’t get anyone loose quick enough in that inning,” Baker said. “He was dealing, too. Turner deserved better.”
What’s next for the right-hander? That remains an open-ended question. No matter what, he has proven himself worthy of a spot on the Nationals pitching staff. And with the bullpen perhaps starting to sort itself out thanks to the return of Koda Glover from the disabled list, the emergence of Enny Romero and the surprisingly effective performance of Matt Albers, the Nats might be able to afford keeping Turner as a starter for now.
With an off-day Monday, the club won’t need a fifth starter again until May 27. So perhaps Turner will return to the bullpen for a little while.
Either way, he insists he’ll be ready for whatever role is asked of him.
“I’m comfortable doing either one,” he said. “I really enjoy starting. I enjoy going through the lineup three times. There’s some little things about starting that are fun for me.”