BALTIMORE -- The ongoing mystery of Daniel Norris and his enigmatic pitching should finally be getting some answers soon. Certainly, the Tigers left-hander is hoping for answers after he left his start Sunday against the Orioles with a recurrence of the left groin tightness that sidelined him last summer and was an issue in Spring Training.
"I don't have a lot of info. It just doesn't feel right, bottom line," Norris said after the Tigers' 5-3 loss. "It's pretty obvious. I don't go from throwing 94 to 87 for no reason, so we're going to try to figure that out and be better for it in the long run."
Norris has been dealing with a velocity drop in his fastball all season while insisting he's healthy. But between an 87-89-mph fastball, spotty command and an uncomfortable-looking delivery, Norris didn't look right on Sunday.
Norris, who has alternated between spot starts and the bullpen since making the Opening Day roster, gave up home runs in each of his first two innings, both on 87-mph fastballs. Trey Mancini jumped his 2-0 pitch for a leadoff homer in the first before lefty-hitting Pedro Alvarez launched a full-count offering to straightaway center field for a two-run shot. Statcast™ estimated Alvarez's shot at 432 feet with a 114.2-mph exit velocity, the third-hardest-hit homer for a left-handed hitter off a left-handed pitcher since Statcast™ began tracking in 2015. Norris walked two other batters and hit another.
Norris went straight to the clubhouse at the end of the second inning, but not with a trainer, and with no corresponding activity in the Tigers' bullpen.
"It was pretty simple to see that he wasn't following through on his pitches," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "He told them in the dugout it was a little tight but it was fine."
He came out for the third inning and retired leadoff hitter Adam Jones before Gardenhire and head athletic trainer Doug Teter went to the mound to check on him.
"I basically said, 'Hey, it's not hurting that bad. I want to keep throwing,'" Norris said. "[Gardenhire] said, 'No, it looks like it's hurting you pretty bad, so we're going to get you out of there.'"
Alex Wilson began warming in a hurry before Gardenhire quickly made the call. Norris clearly wasn't happy with the decision, walking quickly back to the clubhouse ahead of Teter after handing the ball to Gardenhire.
"That's my watch as a manager," Gardenhire said. "It's not only for a day, it's for a career here. I'm not going to let him hurt his arm when his leg's not letting him do what he has to do. That's just the way it's going to be. That's my job. Right now, I'm going to protect those guys' arms as best I can. I'm not going to let him hurt himself."
Said Norris: "I know they have my best interests at heart. But it's weird when you're in between the lines. You don't realize that stuff. You just want to keep competing. That was my mindset there. But obviously looking back, I know that was the right decision."
Norris missed a month and a half last summer with a left groin strain, including mixed results in an August rehab assignment for Triple-A Toledo, before rejoining the Tigers when rosters expanded in September. Though he focused his offseason work on getting healthy and improving his core strength, Norris flew to Philadelphia for a follow-up exam with specialist Dr. William Meyers early in Spring Training.
Though Norris was cleared to pitch and said he was fine, the Tigers brought him along slowly. He made the roster only after Mike Fiers opened the season on the disabled list with a lower lumbar strain. His fastball, a pitch that averaged 93 mph for him over the past two years, has been under 90 mph since the season began.
Norris believes the groin issue is the reason for the drop in velocity.
"Yeah, it's something that I've been dealing with for a while," Norris admitted Sunday. "So we're going to get it figured out and get back on track."
The Tigers already have five starters, so they won't need to fill a rotation spot in his place. They might need another reliever if he goes on the disabled list, but considering he was nearly sent to Triple-A Toledo a few weeks ago, they can handle that. They'd rather get him right and have him continue to pitch this way.
"I know that we are going to do everything to try to take care of me and try to get me right," Norris said. "Not only could I hurt myself going out there, but I'm hurting the team when I'm not able to perform at the best of my ability."