Days removed from achieving his lifelong dream, La Cañada Flintridge native Nik Turley struggled to find the words to describe the feeling of making his Major League Baseball debut with the Minnesota Twins.
“I’ve been dreaming of playing in the big leagues since I was a little kid,” said Turley, who debuted on the mound against San Francisco at AT&T Park. “I was kind of speechless when my manager told me. I don’t even know if it’s sunk in yet.
“It really was a dream come true to be able to pitch in a major league game.”
The performance wasn’t what Turley hoped for, but the experience gave him plenty of lessons going forward. The 6-foot, 4-inch lefthander surrendered four runs and struck out four hitters in four innings of work last Sunday. He left the contest with a no-decision, but the Giants offense took advantage of the Twins’ struggling bullpen, which is last in the league with a collective ERA of 5.52, to come away with a 13-8 victory.
“Obviously, you want to have a good outing your first time out,” said Turley, who is the first La Cañada Flintridge native to play professional baseball since Matt Whisenant. “It doesn’t always work out that way. A bunch of the guys told me, ‘You did your job and kept us in the game.’ They told me that I battled, which is important. I’m hoping this opportunity lasts a little while longer so I can get acclimated to this new level.”
The biggest takeaway from his time on the mound was to not fall behind hitters. Turley allowed eight hits, including five doubles, and four of them came against hitters ahead of the count.
“I started off quite a few guys with a 1-0, 2-0 or 3-0 count,” Turley said. “It’s tough to come back from that. The most important thing I take away is attacking the zone and being really aggressive in the zone and putting pressure on the hitters. It’s a pretty comfortable at-bat if you’re 2-0 or 3-0 in the count. I don’t want hitters to get comfortable.”
Turley felt like his normal self when closing out the bottom of the first. After surrendering two runs, he managed to get Hunter Pence to swing and miss for his first-ever major league strikeout. Turley averaged about 14 strikeouts per nine innings as a minor leaguer this year.
“That felt really good,” Turley admitted. “That was the first at-bat in the inning where I did the stuff I wanted to do. That felt good and helped me calm down for the next couple of innings for sure.”
Twins manager Paul Molitor possibly saw potential in Turley and has given him another opportunity to start this Friday at home against the Indians, according to multiple reports.
The 27-year-old ballplayer certainly earned it after being drafted third-to-last in the 50th round of the 2008 MLB Amateur Draft and battling through the minors for nine years. Turley is a journeyman, having played for the Yankees, Giants, White Sox and Twins minor league affiliates and independent league baseball.
“I feel incredible excitement and happiness for him because he has worked so hard,” said Doug Turley, Nik’s father. “He has over 800 innings pitched in nine years of minor league baseball, including Dominican Republic and independent ball. His wife [Rachel] is a real trooper. They have two young children, going from place to place. It’s been hard, and I’m just really happy for him.”
Doug was ecstatic to hear from his son about the call-up but wasn’t surprised. Being the fifth of five children and having three older brothers who played collegiate sports, Turley always wanted to win, no matter what game it was.
“He has that perseverance and competitiveness,” Doug said. “He’s got the record for most broken windows around the house. I’d come home from work and would see another broken window. I think having older brothers really played because they were so supportive of him.”
Turley is a product of Crescenta Valley Little League, but he played basketball and water polo year round. He eventually committed to baseball while attending Harvard-Westlake in Studio City. In his senior year, the former Wolverine had an ERA of 1.88 in 11 starts and committed to continue his career at Brigham Young University before being the 1,502nd selection in the 2008 MLB draft.
Doug said his son was considered a talented pitcher but scouts worried about his competition at Harvard-Westlake, and his faith as a Mormon.
“Those are the reasons he fell so far down,” said Doug. “He went to Harvard-Westlake, which is a high academic school. Teams felt he was committed to going to college. Also, his faith. He is a part of the Mormon Church, and young men go on two-year missions. Teams felt he would go on his mission. He probably should have been drafted in the first 10 rounds.”
After selecting Turley in the 50th round, the New York Yankees asked him to pitch in front of their scouts. They came back and offered him sixth-round money.
“We, as parents, we felt it was important that he make his own decision,” Doug said. “We gave him input, but it was his decision. He felt the Yankees would give him the time to develop.”
Turley forwent college and accepted the Yankees’ offer, and the local standout became one of the organization’s top pitchers. He was named the Yankees’ minor league pitcher of the year in 2012 and was added to the 40-man roster.
He eventually signed as a minor league free agent with the San Francisco Giants in 2014, and then signed with the Chicago White Sox in November of 2015. Turley was released by the White Sox and signed by the Boston Red Sox, which later released the pitcher.
Turley didn’t want to go long without pitching, so he signed with the Somerset Patriots of the Atlantic League on July 27, 2016. Despite not playing for a major league affiliate, the thought of giving up never crossed Turley’s mind.
“I always believed in my abilities,” he said. “My family always did too, especially my wife. She’s always been behind me. I’m sure a lot of people might have given up, especially going into independent ball. I just believed in myself and had faith that I was good enough and that I would eventually get an opportunity.”
That opportunity came when he signed a minor league contract with the Twins prior to the 2017 season. The always-competitive Turley didn’t rest on his laurels and played winter ball in the Dominican Republic, where he managed to reinvent himself.
“I think playing against some very good competition over there helped me learn how to use my off-speed pitches more,” Turley said. “It was huge to be able to play so close to spring training. I’d say I usually start off a little slow, but this year I was able to start off rolling and ended up doing well.”
Turley had developed a more aggressive mentality on the mound and worked to shorten his stride to make his delivery more consistent, and it all clicked in the Dominican Republic. The LCF native managed to carry that success over into the Twins’ minor league affiliates, the Chattanooga Lookouts and Rochester Red Wings. Turley had an ERA just over 3.00 and struck out 84 hitters in 52 2/3 innings of work.
That success allowed him to finally break into the major leagues, pitching in front of 41,321 fans, which included his family and friends.
“Having my debut in California with a ton of family out there and some close friends that came out to the game was pretty cool,” Turley said. “That support is what I’ve been talking about. Those are the people that had faith in me from day one, and for me to be able to share that moment with them was amazing.”
The surreal moment continues for Turley, who refuses to think about the future.
“To be here right now is amazing,” he said. “I’m loving every second of it.”