Norris dazzles in clutch performance at old home park
Daniel Norris grew up in Johnson City, Tennessee. He became famous for traveling the country in his van in his offseasons. But he spent an important part of his childhood at Turner Field.
“In high school, I’d play summer ball here,” Norris said. “We’d have games at 11 or 1, and we would pack up and carpool to the game. We’d get in for like a buck in the upper deck and sneak down and watch games. It was pretty cool.”
This was where Norris’ Major League dreams were formed. On Friday, with his dreams of playoff baseball closer than ever, this is where Norris looked like a kid again — in a good way.
“Everything was so surreal just being out there and envisioning Chipper in the box, stuff like that,” he said. “That was cool.”
He was effectively wild early on his mound, then dominant late. He was hacking at the plate, nearly drawing a bases-loaded walk and nearly beating out a ground ball. He was hustling in the field, nearly injuring his glove hand trying to backhand a hard-hit comebacker, then later recovering to catch a popup after a miscommunication with Miguel Cabrera.
“He only knows one speed,” manager Brad Ausmus said.
But all in all, he played with urgency, showing the enthusiasm of a young pitcher with a chance to get to the postseason – and a potential matchup with his old team, the Blue Jays.
“That was on my mind the past few days leading up,” Norris said. “I was really excited to get out here and help the team win.”
Norris was able to settle down a tick before he threw his first pitch, thanks to a 3-0 lead. But he still had to corral his pitching. He worked out of jams in the second and third innings, stranding runners at first and second, and lost a couple hitters from 0-2 counts to walks with two outs before surviving on well-struck fly outs.
Once he settled in, though, his own command was a tougher opponent for him than the Braves. Adonis Garcia’s aforementioned deflected comebacker was the only hit Norris allowed in a 17-batter span from Matt Wisler’s third-inning single to Brandon Snyder’s home run on Norris’ 114th and final pitch with two outs in the seventh.
The key was a mix of rising fastballs and sliders. His heater averaged 95.5 mph, according to brooksbaseball.net, his highest average fastball in his big-league career. He threw 79 of them, 60 for strikes, 47 of them garnering swings, 13 of them for swings and misses compared with 14 put in play. Time and again, the fastball sent hitters up and out of their strike zone.
“It was when I stopped trying to force it,” Norris said. “The second and third inning, I was trying to do too much with it, and then I talked with [pitching coach Rich] Dubee and he was like, ‘Hey, you’ve just got to relax and let it happen free and easy.’ Immediately that helped me click back and start using it more effectively.”
Mixed with that was a slider that was moving out of the zone and getting hitters to go with it. He threw 19 of them, more than his changeup and curveball combined. He threw 10 for strikes, nine of them drawing swings and four of them misses.
He threw well enough that Ausmus let him step on deck in the seventh inning if the ninth spot in the order came up, giving him the green light to try to go seven innings despite all that energy he spent at the plate and on the bases.
“He was going to drag bunt,” Ausmus said. “I said, ‘Don’t drag bunt, because then you’ll run hard again.'”
Still, for someone who threw a 54-pitch first inning in one of his final starts of 2015, getting as far as he did was a relative breakthough, even though he had gone seven innings last season. His 114 pitches tied Anibal Sanchez for the most in a game by a Tigers starter not named Verlander. With only one run, he lowered his ERA to 3.38 for the season, allowing 75 hits over 69 1/3 innings with 71 strikeouts. He went 2-0 with a 2.73 ERA over five starts in September, including 38 strikeouts over 29 2/3 innings.
Norris went into Spring Training eight months ago hoping to fight for a rotation spot. He ends the season as the third starter in the Tigers rotation behind Verlander and fellow youngster Michael Fulmer. Even if Norris doesn’t get to pitch in the postseason, he’s a major reason the Tigers have the makings of a formidable young rotation behind Verlander in 2017.
“He’s grown quite a bit,” Ausmus said. “He’s starting to learn how to control his emotions and concentrate on his pitching. He’s gotten deep into games now, and it’s nice to see.”