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Norris delivers positive signs, if not a win

Pitching line isn't pretty, but lefty is looking like a reliable starter
@beckjason
May 18, 2019

DETROIT -- Daniel Norris badly wanted to be a stopper Friday night, the pitcher who changed the momentum of the Tigers’ nightmare week. The way things are going, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer might not have been able to do that if they were here. Yet slowly but surely, Norris

DETROIT -- Daniel Norris badly wanted to be a stopper Friday night, the pitcher who changed the momentum of the Tigers’ nightmare week. The way things are going, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer might not have been able to do that if they were here.

Yet slowly but surely, Norris is taking steps toward being a reliable pitcher in the Tigers' rotation. Considering the sense when he stepped into the rotation for Matt Moore -- a month and three starting pitching injuries ago -- it’s now a sense of progress.

Instead of focusing on velocity lost and regained, Norris has thrown opponents a changeup -- several, literally -- and become a viable four-pitch starter. Separate his four- and two-seam fastballs, and that pitch count might be five. Instead of nibbling at the corners and piling up walks, he’s working up and down in the strike zone and trusting in the movement of his pitches.

It won’t show in his line, with six runs on seven hits over 5 1/3 innings on Friday, but for the first half of the game, Norris gave Detroit a chance. The Tigers’ 7-2 loss to the A’s at Comerica Park marked Detroit’s fifth consecutive defeat on this homestand, a streak in which the Tigers have been outscored by a 48-11 margin. Compared with the other four games, Friday was a closer matchup deeper into the game, as Norris traded zeroes with A’s starter Frankie Montas for the first three innings.

Box score

“This is the best I've felt,” Norris said. “My mechanics felt good the whole time. Pitches were good. Stuff was the best it's been all year. One pitch at the end kind of spoils it there, but at the end of the day, I have to keep in mind where I was and where I am now, and I feel good about that.”

Norris was part of the Tigers’ insurance policy for starting pitching injuries when the season began.

With four starters on the injured list and rookie Gregory Soto working as a short-rest starter in what is currently a four-man rotation, Norris is now part of the three-man pitching core with Matthew Boyd and Spencer Turnbull. Their work is critical -- not just small amounts of damage, but large numbers of innings. Norris is answering the call, even as the Tigers struggle to find an answer to their skid.

“I feel like he’s been throwing the ball great, every one of his starts,” catcher John Hicks said. “He might’ve had one sprinkle in there, but I’ve been really pleased with how he has thrown the ball.”

When Norris (2-2) retired nine of Oakland’s first 10 batters, allowing only a Khris Davis single leading off the second inning, he became the first Tigers starter to hold an opponent scoreless in his first trip through the order since his own previous start last Sunday at Minnesota.

When Norris put Jurickson Profar in an 0-2 count leading off the fifth inning, he became the first Tigers starter to throw a pitch in the fifth since … Norris himself, also in his last start, when he took a scoreless bid into the seventh.

When Profar wriggled out of that 0-2 count to draw a leadoff walk, followed by a Mark Canha home run off a 91-mph fastball, Norris and the Tigers were facing a 3-0 deficit. The way Montas was pitching, darting his fastballs past hitters, the Tigers still hadn’t put a runner on base.

This is where struggling teams, especially with younger players, tend to sink. Though Miguel Cabrera and Josh Harrison doubled off Montas in the bottom of the fifth to get a run back, JaCoby Jones whiffed fielding Matt Olson's single up the middle, allowing Davis to score another Oakland run in the sixth. Chad Pinder followed with a two-run homer that put the game essentially out of reach. Cabrera added another double for an RBI in the ninth, ending Montas’ bid for a complete game, and tying Cabrera with Lou Gehrig for 63rd on MLB’s all-time hit list with 2,721.

As with Profar, Norris had an 0-2 count on Pinder, only to put three pitches well out of the strike zone to run the count full. Pinder crushed a slider over the plate and drove it an estimated 437 feet towards the flagpole in left-center according to Statcast.

“I just didn’t make good pitches,” Norris said. “A 3-2 slider, I'm just trying to throw it for a strike.”

Norris gave up six runs on seven hits over 5 1/3 innings, raising his earned-run average to 4.50 from 3.63. The bigger worry arguably was Jones’ error, or the trend it continued. When the Tigers struggled to score runs early in the season, they competed in games with pitching and defense. Jones’ error was his second in a week, charging a ball and missing it on the bounce, and it followed a 17-3 loss Thursday that featured a few misplays by the Tigers infield.

Reversing the negative momentum starts with pitching. The fact that Norris at least gave his team a chance was a sign of his progress since joining the rotation and finding a five-day routine. Again, his changeup was a viable pitch -- he threw it 12 times, and it accounted for half of the eight swings and misses he induced. His slider wasn’t as effective, and his curveball looked like a throwaway pitch compared to the way he used it in the past.

“I think this was good today,” he said. “Fastball-changeup was great today. Slider wasn't great. Curveball wasn't great. But even so, I still felt good, felt like I was in attack mode. I feel like I threw the ball a lot better than my results tonight.”

The results all around have been rough for the Tigers lately. Once they start to turn, Norris’ progress should loom larger.

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