PHOENIX — Count Phoenix senior James Turnbull as someone who believes practice makes perfect, and extra practice, well, that just gets you there sooner.
Always striving to get extra cuts in the batting cage or more grounders hit his way, Turnbull has lofty expectations for himself and his Phoenix baseball team and isn’t interested in cutting corners in that pursuit.
“James is the ultimate competitor,” says Phoenix head coach Bill Hutchinson. “He never takes a play off, he never takes a pitch off and his hustle motivates the rest of our team. He goes hard out of the (batter’s) box and just everything he does is 100 percent.”
An admitted perfectionist, the 5-foot-10, 146-pound Turnbull says the extra work is necessary in order to accomplish his main goal for his final season at Phoenix.
“Coming into this season I knew we had a lot of good guys and my main goal was to be able to make the playoffs,” says the 18-year-old pitcher/middle infielder. “I didn’t really care what my stats were and how I was doing, I just wanted to come back here and win games and kind of bring Phoenix back into the mainstay of Rogue Valley baseball.”
The state championship archives are brimming with teams from Southern Oregon, with Phoenix doing its part to claim the 3A title in 1998 to go with a handful of deep runs in other years. The Pirates, however, have not reached the state playoffs since 2011, which was also the last time they stood atop the talent-rich Skyline Conference.
But with players like Turnbull leading the way, 2017 brings new hope for a playoff revival at Phoenix, which is 8-4 overall and 2-1 in Skyline play entering today’s 5 p.m. home game (weather permitting) against Mazama at Hagler-James Field in Talent.
“I do think this is a group that will get them over the hump,” says Hutchinson. “There’s no quit in them. We’re manufacturing a lot of runs and getting some very timely hits and our pitching has been phenomenal.”
Turnbull checks off all those boxes and then some. He leads the pitching staff with a 5-0 record and 1.25 ERA and, out of the No. 2 spot in the batting order, Turnbull is hitting .452 with 13 walks, 17 runs, 11 RBIs and 19 stolen bases.
“Every aspect of the game, he’s got it covered,” says Hutchinson.
And those numbers say nothing about the intangibles Turnbull has provided thus far, according to his coach.
“James is our catalyst,” says Hutchinson. “He keeps our guys going the entire game. When we get a little bit flat it’s his voice I hear, whether in the dugout or on the field, to get guys going. He is our leader in every way.”
None of that has come by happenstance, mind you. Turnbull credits his summer playing for the Medford Mustangs, who won the American Legion AAA state title and finished one win shy of a second straight trip to the Legion World Series, for encoding in him what it was like to train and carry himself as a winner, and an offseason of determined work with St. Mary’s head coach Sean Gallagher and a handful of others for fine-tuning his abilities.
With the Mustangs, Turnbull batted .307 with 24 RBIs and handled shortstop duties while also seeing 14⅓ innings of relief pitching work.
“Working with the Mustang coaches and in the winter with (Gallagher) really elevated how I was pitching and how I approached the game,” says Turnbull, who boasts a 3.43 GPA. “The Mustangs was a college atmosphere type of experience and not only the winning part was awesome but to be able to play with guys who had already graduated and were doing good in college or were preparing for college, it just showed me what it’s going to be like in the road ahead for me (at Simpson University).”
Still, even Turnbull has been taken aback by his early season success thus far, especially on the mound. He only took up pitching in eighth grade and hadn’t been used beyond a slight bullpen role until this year.
“I’ve kind of honestly surprised myself a little bit,” he says. “There’s been a few games I didn’t have my stuff and my defense has really stepped it up for me. Honestly, the defense has really been what’s the big difference in my pitching this year. All season long I’ve gotten myself into a few jams in almost every game and my defense has really stepped up, especially with Brennen Watts over at shortstop and all the guys in the outfield. They’ve made it a lot easier on me.”
That helped has spilled over in every aspect of the game, according to Turnbull. Watts, a junior who shares shortstop duties with Turnbull, leads the team with a .511 batting average to go with 15 RBIs and 15 stolen bases, while senior all-Skyline outfielder Thomas Skaff is batting .403 with 19 runs and 18 stolen bases and No. 9 hitter Sam Datz is batting .382 with a .510 on-base percentage.
“With these guys, every out is a hard out,” says Hutchinson. “They’ve gotten more rollover infield basehits than I’ve ever seen a team have. They just get down the line fast and give all they have.”
With Turnbull leading the charge for a team that has gained confidence with every victory, especially during a six-game winning streak earlier this season.
“It’s kind of a business atmosphere in the way we go about things this year,” adds Turnbull. “We try to take care of business not only in games but practices and get our reps in and make sure we’re prepared. And I think the biggest thing this year is going into games knowing we can win, where others years that was only a maybe. This year with the personalities we have, it just kind of pushes everyone on the team to want to win all the time. Hopefully that’s really sparked something that can be built on for years to come.”
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry