July’s opening day ceremonies and games marked not only the return of Major League Baseball and a semblance of normalcy in a world of COVID-19, but the beginning of Nik Turley’s comeback tour.
“That was my first opening day,” said Turley, a journeyman pitcher who earned a spot on the Pittsburgh Pirates’ season-opening roster, a first in the Crescenta Valley Little League product’s career. “With no fans, it was a different experience for an opening day, but it was pretty special for me.”
It was especially momentous for Turley, 30, because he had not pitched in the major leagues since 2017 due to a suspension and Tommy John surgery. The Pirates claimed him off waivers from the Minnesota Twins, with whom he made his MLB debut, two years ago and made a place for the left-hander on their 30-man roster.
“It’s been awhile for me,” he said. “With the injury and COVID-19, it’s been about a year and a half or maybe two. I was just excited for the season to get going and finally get the word that we’re going back out there. I was just ready to compete again.”
Turley, who grew up in La Cañada Flintridge, showed that competitive nature and ability at a young age while playing at CVLL. He played basketball and water polo year-round but focused on baseball while attending Harvard-Westlake School in Studio City, which has one of the top baseball programs in the state. As a senior, he posted an earned-run average of 1.88 in 11 starts and committed to Brigham Young University.
The 6-foot, 4-inch pitcher was selected third-to-last in the 50th round of the 2008 MLB amateur draft by the New York Yankees. Despite being the 1,502nd pick, Turley decided to forgo college after being offered sixth-round money by the Yankees and was named the organization’s minor league pitcher of the year in 2012.
However, Turley didn’t immediately get an opportunity to showcase his talent in the majors. He bounced around independent league baseball and minor league affiliates for the San Francisco Giants, Chicago White Sox and Boston Red Sox before joining the Minnesota organization. After pitching well in AA and AAA, Turley was called up and made his debut at AT&T Park in San Francisco on June 11, 2017.
His MLB experience was cut short, and the Twins sent him back to the minors after three tough starts. Turley finished his stint at Minnesota with an 0-2 record and 11.21 ERA in 10 appearances.
“I think my first time up with the Twins, I felt like if I failed, then the opportunity was going to go away,” Turley said. “So when you put that kind of pressure on yourself, it’s hard to compete.”
That experience certainly hardened Turley, especially for the challenges to come. He was suspended for 80 games after testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance in January 2018 and later experienced tightness in his elbow that led to ligament replacement surgery.
“When the season is going and you can’t play, that’s probably the hardest part,” Turley said. “Knowing guys that are playing, you’re hoping for the best for them and watching the season go by. You get that itch to play but you know you’re not going to. That was tough.
“I had never been hurt before, so I didn’t know what to expect. I’d say the hardest thing was not being able to do the normal stuff that I was used to. I had to sit out for a while and just work on my mobility.”
Other injured players with the organization were going through similar rehab, and that helped Turley get through the process. The pitcher was solid in spring training prior to its cancellation by the league in March. MLB postponed its season, then reached an agreement with players to begin play on July 23.
Turley benefited from the extra time off, which allowed him to work on his delivery and arm strength after nearly two years of not pitching.
“The break with COVID and us having to quarantine actually gave my arm a little more time to feel better and be ready for the season,” he said. “Not that I wasn’t ready for the season, but the soreness after pitching during the first spring training was new to me. It was day to day of not knowing how it’s going to feel. [During summer training,] I felt more normal. The extra time really gave me a chance to get my arm going, so I think it was really a blessing in disguise.”
The league made several rule changes, most notably expanding the roster to 30 players, that “gave some guys an opportunity that might not have gotten the chance otherwise,” Turley said. He’s just grateful to have another shot on the most prominent stage.
“Honestly, I’d say the biggest thing is just having that opportunity to really show that I belong,” he said. “Even though I’ve been called up before, it didn’t go very well. Obviously, my numbers with the Twins weren’t great, but personally I felt I just needed that extra opportunity to show the baseball world that I can compete at this level. I’ve always had faith in my abilities. I don’t feel like I’ve settled in, but I definitely feel like I belong.”
Turley underscored that notion in his first appearance with the Pirates on July 25 when he tossed a scoreless inning in relief against the St. Louis Cardinals, an experience he said “was awesome” and unusual because it was in an empty stadium.
“There are definitely some different aspects to the season, such as no fans and not being able to have family come out to the games,” he said. “It’s been strange. … I wish we could see the city more and experience PNC Park with the fans,” said Turley, who resides in Pittsburgh with his wife, Rachel, and children. “It’s definitely a little different, but it’s been great. PNC Park is definitely one of the nicest parks in the game. I’ve really enjoyed my time with the Pirates. They’ve given me multiple opportunities and shown their faith in me.”
Pittsburgh certainly demonstrated that faith by continuing to give Turley work on the mound despite his having allowed four earned runs over four games after his first appearance. His ERA ballooned to 8.31 but manager Derek Shelton stuck with the lefty, who went on to a six-game scoreless streak and dropped to 3.48. Turley earned the first save of his career in a 2-0 victory over the Cardinals on Aug. 27 and struggled in his next two appearances before bouncing back with a scoreless eighth inning during a 6-2 win over the Chicago Cubs on Thursday.
“As a reliever, you give up a couple of runs here and there, and your ERA is going to go way up,” said Turley, who has recorded 11 strikeouts in 14 innings as of Thursday. “Runs are going to happen. Streaks of doing well are going to happen, too. You just have to take them both in stride. You have your game plan and you try to stick to it. My mentality is to not give in. … I think after dealing with some failure, you just know you’re going to have to deal with it and still have to compete.”
That mindset seems to be shared by his teammates as the Pirates avoided a sweep by the first-place Cubs before entering a four-game series this weekend against the Cincinnati Reds.
“We’ve had fun even though we started off pretty rough,” Turley said. “We started to string together a few wins, and hopefully we keep it going. We have a good group of guys, and it’s a good atmosphere in the clubhouse.”