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Building it back up: Fulmer, Norris to share fourth spot in Tigers' rotation for now

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Pittsburgh – This clearly was not the plan.

Back in 2016 when Michael Fulmer was putting together his rookie of the year campaign and Daniel Norris was getting his first real foothold in the big leagues, it looked like they’d be fixtures in the Tigers’ rotation for years to come.

Daniel Norris takes a deep breath between pitches against the Reds on Aug. 2.

Three years and a multitude of injuries later, Fulmer and Norris are scheduled to work in tandem Monday night against the White Sox – Fulmer as the de facto opener, limited to three innings, and Norris working the middle innings.

“For me and him, we’ve both been battling some injuries the last couple of years,” Fulmer said Sunday. “It’s tough. You’re just anxious to get back out there. We both worked our butts off to try and get back. He was amped up for his first start, understandably, as was I for my first start.

“But we got that out of the way and we should be able to handle our emotions a little better. We’re healthy. We’re back. Now we just focus on each start as it comes.”

It’s been an agonizing two weeks for both pitchers. Fulmer made his first start after 22 months, rehabbing from both knee surgery and Tommy John surgery, on July 27. He gave up three home runs in 2.2 innings and hasn’t been back on the game mound since.

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He was all warmed up and ready last Saturday when the rains came about eight minutes before first pitch. His subsequent start was also canceled because the Cardinals were quarantined with COVID-19 issues.

“Yeah, so it’s been about two weeks,” he said. “I’m anxious to get back out there. I pitched four innings, about 70 pitches, of live batting practice on Wednesday and I felt really good. I feel like I’m ready to get back out there.”

Norris missed a good chunk of 2018 and 2019 after groin surgery and then tested positive for COVID-19 and missed all of summer camp. He finally made his 2020 debut last Sunday against the Reds and it went poorly. He needed 54 pitches to get through 1.2 innings.

A couple of days after that, manager Ron Gardenhire announced that Norris would work out of the bullpen until he built himself back up.

Norris didn’t love the decision, but he understood it.

“The way they explained it to me was that I had a lot of time off and I just had to build it back up,” he said. “Although I feel like I’m ready to start, I understand it.”

Norris threw two innings of live batting practice on Wednesday. Like Fulmer, he made some slight mechanical adjustments and he said he was getting the life and movement back on his pitches.

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“Honestly, it was the best I felt in a long time,” he said. “I’m pleased with that. I felt really good about the way I was throwing the ball.”

Norris had a hard time commanding any of his pitches against the Reds, especially the change-up, which is a vital pitch for him.

“That was the big thing, they weren’t chasing the change-up,” Norris said. “I was really short with it, not throwing it for strikes. … I was really trying make perfect pitches. I wasn’t all over the place, but if I was trying to throw it down in the zone, I’d throw it way down, just trying to be too fine.

“In the live BP, I just decided to attack and I started getting the action I should.”

Working out of the bullpen, as much as Norris would prefer to start, will help facilitate a more attack-based mentality. He said the velocity on his fastball Wednesday was 93-94 mph (he was 90-91 Sunday and last season).

“I am treating it like I am in the bullpen,” Norris said. “I’ve got to embrace that.”

Michael Fulmer

Both Fulmer and Norris are 27, both should be entering the prime years of their careers. Instead, they are fighting just to get a full share of a rotation spot. But, given what they’ve fought through the last couple of years, just getting the ball again feels like a triumph.

“Yeah, just getting back on the mound again is encouraging,” Fulmer said. “This two-week hiatus wasn’t really what I expected, but you can’t control some things. I’m going to try to give it my all tomorrow, but I am just happy to have my health right now.

“I told Rick (Anderson, pitching coach), just give me some time to get used to things. The live BP really helped, throwing 70 pitches and getting to lengthen out a little bit – I’m really happy with that. I’m going into tomorrow just like it’s a regular start.”

Twitter @cmccosky