Houston — It was a curious start for Tigers pitcher Daniel Norris. It might also have been a breakthrough start.
In his three previous starts he’d thrown 100-plus pitches and not gotten through the sixth inning. And on Wednesday, he seemed to be heading down the same path.
From the start, the velocity on his fastball was down a tick (from an average of 94 to an average of 91.5). And the velocity on his change-up was about 1 mph firmer (86 instead of 85).
Not typically a serviceable combination.
And on top of that, his pace through the first three-plus innings was dreadfully slow. He was at 75 pitches through four innings, after having to navigate through some choppy waters in each inning.
But something clicked in the fourth, after he had allowed the Astros to tie the score 2-2, on a walk, double and sacrifice fly.
At that point, Warwick Saupold was warming up and Norris was on the ropes.
“It could have been a turning point,” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. “It could’ve gone two ways. It could’ve gone south or he could have regathered, composed himself and continued on. Obviously he did the latter.”
Did he ever. He retired 10 straight hitters, getting through the sixth and the first out of the seventh.
“It really helps that he could walk away from the game knowing he did an excellent job,” Ausmus said. “He kept us in the game until the seventh. If he can do that on a regular basis, he’ll be pitching for a long time.”
So what changed?
“From the get-go I was too concerned with throwing strikes,” Norris said. “It was the same story that was told the other day against the Rangers, in that inning where I walked in a run. That’s a whole mental thing.
“I start thinking about throwing strikes and I let off. So instead of throwing 95, I am at 91-92 and it’s just a cutter and not a strike. It’s counter-productive.”
In the fourth inning, after giving up a ringing double to Alex Bregman and a sacrifice fly to Nori Aoki, Norris did what catcher Alex Avila has been trying to get him to do for weeks — relax.
“I would actually prefer him to come in and say, ‘Who gives a crap,’ so he can relax a little bit,” Avila said. “When he locks in and settles down and just plays catch, it’s pretty nice — pretty special.”
From the fourth and into the seventh, his fastball was back up to a comfortable 94 and his change-up was back where it was supposed to be, at 84. His slider had more bite, as well.
“When I was warming up for the fifth inning, I was working on letting it go,” Norris said. “I’m just thinking too much. I stopped thinking and that’s when I started rolling. Now I have to take that into my next start from the get-go instead of finding it in the fifth inning after 80-some pitches.”
One of the two runs scored off Norris was unearned — the fifth unearned run against the Tigers in two games. This one, though, was dubious.
George Springer, who appeared to be struck out on a 2-2 pitch leading off the third inning, was awarded first base on a catcher’s interference call. His bat hit Avila’s glove on the swing.
“It hit the back of my hand, not so much glove; it hit my hand in the glove,” Avila said. “The ball was in my glove and he decided to swing. I know he's not doing that on purpose, but ... the ball's in my glove and then he swings and he gets awarded first base.
“I think that might be a rule that Major League Baseball should look at.”
It was the sixth time the Astros have reached on catcher’s interference this season. The rest of the 29 teams combined have 10. Is it a coincidence the Astros have so many, or is it a technique?
“I get it if it hit the front of my glove, but it hit my wrist,” Avila said. “There's a big difference there. I know Springer isn't doing it on purpose; though I know they have a quite a few interference calls earlier this year.
"But when you're that far behind (the pitch) and the ball's in the glove, it (ticks) you off that he gets awarded first base. That's what I was mad about. The ball was in my glove. There was no shot there. You just stick the bat down and hit my glove, hit my hand, and get awarded first base.”
Springer ended up at third on a one-out double by Jose Altuve, and scored on a sacrifice fly by Evan Gattis.