As recently as 2010, Lakeland was just a stop Jacob Turner had to make on the fast track to Detroit. Now the Tigers' Class A Advanced affiliate is playing another important role in the right-hander's journey back to the Majors.
Pitching in a competitive game for the first time in almost six weeks since being sidelined with shoulder tendinitis, MLB.com's No. 15 prospect did not allow a hit. He walked two batters and faced one above the minimum, tossing four scoreless frames in the Flying Tigers' 7-2 victory over the Daytona Cubs.
"I think there were a lot of positives to take from it," said Turner. "I was happy to be pitching again. I was excited to get the season started. Any time you can play the game you love, it's fun."
The first-rounder retired the side in order in the first inning and he picked John Andreoli off first base in the second after the left fielder had drawn a two-out walk.
A free pass to Chad Noble with one away in the third saw Turner working out of the stretch again, but catcher James McCann nailed Noble trying to steal second base. The only other baserunner allowed by Detroit's top prospect got aboard when second baseman Hernan Perez misplayed Arismendy Alcantara's grounder, but Turner used one of seven groundball outs to escape unharmed.
"I had pretty good fastball command," he said. "My breaking stuff wasn't as sharp as I would have liked, but that will come with a few more innings. I lost the feel with a couple batters, but that will get better over time."
The last time the 20-year-old was in the Florida State League, he went 4-2 with a 2.93 ERA in 13 starts. It may be a different point of his career, but he knows that his performances now are just as important as they were when he was a rookie.
"I think I'm pretty close," Turner said about returning to 100 percent. "I don't know how many more innings I need, but one or maybe two more starts until I'm comfortable. They told me that since my arm was bothering me, I would be down here, but with the warmer weather, that is not a bad thing.
"I think my performance and what the Tigers want to do next will dictate [what happens from here]. There were positives tonight and I need to build on them."
The 6-foot-5 Missouri native made his Major League debut in a 5-1 loss to the Los Angeles Angels on July 30 and he made an additional two starts as a September callup once the 25-man rosters expanded. He was considered to be among the leading candidates fighting for the fifth spot on Detroit's Opening Day roster, but the shoulder injury ultimately cost him a shot at an immediate return to the big leagues.
After yielding six runs in consecutive Grapefruit League starts, the Tigers initially shut Turner down for a week in the middle of March in hopes that he would miss one turn in the rotation and remain in camp.
He started playing catch March 20, but after throwing two bullpen sessions, the Tigers optioned Turner first to Triple-A Toledo and then to Lakeland.
"It was frustrating, but there was nothing I could do about it," Turner said. "I was ready to go when I got to Spring Training, but my arm just wasn't. Even the slightest injury can affect your performance, so I'm glad we took care of it early."
On Monday, Matt Little (1-2) worked around a hit and a walk in two innings of relief, and Matt Crouse worked a scoreless seventh to maintain his perfect 0.00 ERA. Tyler White allowed an unearned run in the eighth, and Bruce Rondon struck out two batters and allowed a run on a hit and three walks in the ninth.
Perez went 2-for-3 with three runs scored and an RBI and McCann was 3-for-4 with an RBI double in the victory.
Daytona starter Zach Cates (0-3) surrendered three runs on six hits over four innings to drop his third consecutive decision.