Norris, Greene continue impressive duel for 5th rotation spot

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Daniel Norris pitches against the Mets in the first inning Monday.

Lakeland, Fla. – It’s befuddling how hard Tigers left-hander Daniel Norris has to work to get through an inning sometimes.

As good as his stuff was Monday in the Tigers’ 9-2 spring win over the Mets, it shouldn’t have taken him 53 pitches to get through two innings. His fastball was crisp at 95 mph, his cut-changeup coming in 10 mph less with movement, with a two-seamer, slider and curve moving in and out, up and down.

“Like, I’m not upset about today, but I know I need to get deeper in games,” Norris said.

Manager Brad Ausmus sat and talked with Norris alongside the Tigers’ dugout for an inning and a half following his outing.

“Brad was just like, ‘Less is more,’” Norris said. “He said, ‘You’re a bulldog out there and I love watching you pitch. But if you want to go deeper into games, you have to start inducing contact.’

“I mean, this is stuff I know. I just need to execute.”

BOX SCORE: Tigers 9, Mets 2

Four of his six recorded outs were strikeouts, that’s how good his stuff was. He got Lucas Duda and Michael Conforto on cut-changeups, which he throws with more velocity than his regular changeup. He got Neil Walker and Matt Reynolds on two-seam fastballs.

But he struggled to put hitters away in a 33-pitch second inning. He hung a slider to Wilmer Flores, who doubled. He gave up an RBI-single to Kevin Plawecki after getting two strikes on him. He did the same with Johnny Monell, allowing a two-strike single.

“What happens, and it’s not uncommon for a young pitcher with the type of stuff he has,” Ausmus said, “is they have a tendency to want to make the breaking ball break sharper and throw their fastball harder. What happens is the pitches come up in the zone and you start to have trouble getting the ball down.

“There is a learning curve to understanding you have to back off a little bit. Throwing harder or faster isn’t the answer. When you hear people talk about the game speeding up, that’s part of it.”

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Norris gets it intellectually; it’s just a matter of the message getting to his amped-up 22-year-old heart.

“If I get 0-2 or 1-2, I like to finish guys off up (in the zone),” he said. “But the pitches aren’t competitive if they are at their head. An eight-foot fastball is irrelevant. I’ve got to be better at that.

“If I don’t muscle up and leave it up there, if maybe I can just be free and easy and throw it at the letters, I will get the swing and miss.”

All in all, though, his stuff has been and continues to be dominating.

“He was good,” Ausmus said. “He’s a prideful, talented kid and he wants to be good.”

Norris continues to be the front-runner to win the final spot in the Tigers’ rotation. One of his primary competitors for the role, Shane Greene, pitched four scoreless innings and struck out six.

He allowed three singles and a double.

“He threw some good fastballs and good, hard cutters,” Ausmus said. “To me, that was his best outing so far. His cutter was especially effective today.”

Ausmus wasn’t about to handicap the race for the fifth spot. He wouldn’t even disclose whether Buck Farmer and Matt Boyd are still in contention.

“We haven’t discussed it, quite frankly,” he said. “Both (Greene and Norris) are in consideration. But I wouldn’t characterize it more than that. At some point we will make a decision on who the fifth starter is and you guys will be the fourth person to know.”

A firm wind was blowing out to center field at Marchant Stadium Monday, but J.D. Martinez’s two-run blast over the wall in right-center in the fifth didn’t need much help. Mike Aviles hit a three-run homer in the seventh, after three consecutive fly balls were blown away from Mets fielders – one was a triple by Bryan Holaday.

Twitter @cmccosky