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Unfazed by rough frame, Norris K's 8 in loss

@beckjason
June 23, 2019

CLEVELAND -- The Tigers were well down in Sunday’s series finale against the Indians after a five-run second inning. Daniel Norris was not. His body language on the mound doesn’t hide his emotions, especially when the ball is put in play. A two-out single from Francisco Lindor in the seventh

CLEVELAND -- The Tigers were well down in Sunday’s series finale against the Indians after a five-run second inning. Daniel Norris was not.

His body language on the mound doesn’t hide his emotions, especially when the ball is put in play. A two-out single from Francisco Lindor in the seventh inning had him crushed, even with the Tigers already well on their way to an 8-3 loss and a series sweep at Progressive Field.

Box score

When Norris retired Oscar Mercado three pitches later, he completed seven innings for the first time since his Tigers debut on Aug. 2, 2015, when he threw 7 1/3 innings of one-run ball in Baltimore. He was the headline prospect in the David Price trade back then, a bright career seemingly in front of him.

Injuries and inconsistencies have slowed his career as well as his fastball since then, but Sunday’s outing was a reminder of what he can still do when he’s on. It was also a measuring stick of what he can do when things aren’t in his favor. He has tossed at least six innings in back-to-back starts for the first time in almost exactly two years. He also became the fourth Tigers pitcher in the past four years to strike out eight or more batters with no walks in an outing with less than 100 pitches.

“That was a heck of a performance,” Detroit manager Ron Gardenhire said. “You get down early like that, and you have a tendency to let up. He just grinded it out for seven innings, and he was huge for this baseball team. And it was huge for him, too. He really dug deep. He gave us an opportunity. We just missed plays all day again."

For that last reason, Norris was more competitive than Sunday’s score would suggest. A flurry of defensive miscues extended his tumultuous second inning, from a missed tag by second baseman Gordon Beckham to a Bobby Bradley ground-rule double that Christin Stewart seemingly ran down but lost in his dash toward the left-field corner. Since Niko Goodrum’s throw into the Tigers' dugout on Kevin Plawecki’s single -- a play Gardenhire said third baseman Harold Castro could’ve made if positioned farther back -- was the lone Detroit error, all five runs were earned, killing the momentum of JaCoby Jones’ leadoff home run that put Detroit on top.

“At that point, you go out there and accept the challenge and try to save the bullpen and keep the score where it's at,” Norris said. “Yeah, that was the game plan: Get as deep as I could.”

The extra outs stretched Norris to 30 pitches in that inning. He used just 63 in his other six, retiring 15 of 16 batters between Mercado’s second-inning RBI single and Lindor’s seventh-inning single. The lone hit between was a Carlos Santana home run off a fifth-inning, first-pitch fastball.

If the Tigers had converted an out from any of those three second-inning plays, Cleveland’s five-run surge would’ve been a two-run frame instead. Norris would’ve been in line for a quality start, and the Tigers' two-run rally in the eighth would’ve been much more important.

“I felt like [Norris] threw the ball great and deserved better,” catcher Bobby Wilson said. “It's kind of a repeated theme here that I've said the last couple days, but gosh dog, he threw the ball really, really well.”

Norris’ fastball was down Sunday, averaging just under 90 mph and topping out just shy of 92, but he hid it with a near-even mix of fastballs (28), sliders (27) and changeups (23). Though his changeup was just a few miles per hour off his fastball Sunday, he induced seven swings-and-misses with it, helping him on his way to a season-high eight strikeouts along with no walks.

“It's the movement,” Wilson explained. “It has split action, almost looks like a two-seamer coming out. From my standpoint, it's tough for hitters to stay on it. The bottoming action to it is what he's trying to accomplish with it.”

The bottoming action takes it out of the strike zone.

“In my mind, I was just trying to not throw a strike with it,” Norris said, “just throw all of them with conviction. It ended up making my slider better and heater as well. I thought we mixed it well, mixed in some curveballs too for strikes.”

As much as the line has seemingly been used since last September, Norris’ work is slowly trending upward. As stalled as the progress seems, it’s a similar trudge to the path Matthew Boyd took in his three-year climb from the Detroit-Toledo shuttle to back-end starter to Tigers ace, All-Star candidate and potential trade piece next month.

At age 26, Norris still has room to grow. With Detroit’s rotation still depleted by injuries despite Jordan Zimmermann’s return, Norris will get every opportunity to learn. More outings like Sunday will give him more innings to do so.

“Gotta figure something out,” Wilson said. “I know guys are relying on me to get him through this, and I take great pride in it. Gotta figure something out, but he could've very easily finished that game the way he was throwing the ball. One inning.”

Said Norris: “Honestly, it's probably the best I've felt all year, really.”

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.