Norris makes case to stick in Tigers' rotation

Lefty goes 5 strong innings with 6 K's in win over White Sox

April 21st, 2019

DETROIT -- This is why manager Ron Gardenhire didn’t want to skip in the Tigers’ rotation this time around.

Gardenhire could have pushed the lefty back to the bullpen again after a second weather-related postponement in eight days, but he wanted to send a message: It’s time.

“He needs to go out there and pitch and earn his keep like every other starting pitcher,” Gardenhire said before the Tigers’ 4-3 win over White Sox on Sunday afternoon at Comerica Park. “I want him in there. I want to see what he can do. We need to see what this guy can do.

“We've talked about him now for the two years that I've been here, about this big prospect that he was when we got him. He's been hurt, and injuries happen in this game. But now, I want to see what he can do when we put him out there every fifth day and let him go.”

With Matt Moore out for the season following knee surgery, this is Norris’ spot to take. On Sunday, he grabbed it with five scoreless innings and six strikeouts against a young, aggressive White Sox lineup. Norris not only allowed the Tigers to control the rubber match of this series early, but he put away the questions about his velocity, his health and his confidence.

He simply pitched. And he showed that’s plenty good enough.

“It’s definitely a step in the right direction,” Norris said of his first win since Sept. 28, 2017.

Said Gardenhire: “He pitched really well. To see his face, he’s confident. Now, we just have to keep that going forward.”

Norris’ first 10 pitches were strikes, a collection of fastballs, changeups and sliders. His first ball was to his fourth batter, the pitch before he retired Yonder Alonso to end the inning after Jose Abreu’s two-out double. Norris saw catcher John Hicks erase Yoan Moncada’s leadoff single in the second with a caught stealing at second base, then he got on a roll, striking out four consecutive White Sox on his way to retiring 11 of his final 12 batters.

He threw first-pitch strikes to his first five batters and 13 of 17 in all. Norris had just two three-ball counts, one of them a 10-pitch battle with Tim Anderson, who fouled off four consecutive pitches after an 0-2 count for a walk that comprised Norris’ last baserunner.

Norris overcame that disappointment, as well as a mixup at second base that turned a pickoff into a stolen base. With Anderson on third, Norris sent down Moncada chasing a high fastball, then he retired the White Sox in order in the fifth.

His delivery was refined and consistent, without the recoil at the end that he’d worked through Spring Training to retire. His fastball drew 12 called strikes, three swings and misses and 18 foul balls, rarely getting centered.

“I thought my fastball command was the best it’s been in a while,” Norris said. “If I wanted to go down and away, I could get it there instead of cutting to the middle. The adjustments I made with [pitching coach Rick Anderson] this past week have sort of paid off as far as command and the flight of the ball, trusting the flight of the ball instead of hoping it’ll cut.”

Norris’ fastball averaged 91 mph, topping out just shy of 93. But the way he threw it, the velocity was irrelevant.

“It plays so much harder than that,” Hicks said, “and you can tell by looking at their swings. Even if it’s a strike, they’re behind it. That’s great. We can use that and pitch off that.”

Add in a changeup that looked like a splitter, effective enough to throw 11 times, along with nine sliders and eight curveballs, and Norris made it work.

As he walked back into the dugout, Gardenhire gave him a handshake on his way in and a pat on the back on his way past. This is what Gardenhire wanted to see, not just the results, but the conviction from Norris to make this rotation spot his own. He’ll get a rematch against the White Sox on Friday in Chicago.

“I enjoyed the game,” Gardenhire said. “It had a good pace to it. He was ahead in the count for the most part. And that’s what you want out of a starting pitcher.”