Lakeland, Fla. — Medically, the news was reassuring. Daniel Norris left Tuesday’s game against the Blue Jays not because of arm problems, which had been the initial fear, but because of back tightness that should be a short-term hassle.
Competitively, the Tigers left-hander has a separate and more urgent problem as he tries to crack manager Brad Ausmus’ starting rotation.
Norris has neither pitched well enough, frequently enough, nor deeply enough into games, to win a rotation spot that probably disappeared in a 16-1 loss to the Blue Jays at Marchant Stadium.
“It doesn’t help him,” said Ausmus, who likely is looking at either Matt Boyd or Shane Greene as a fifth starter.
Norris, 22, is a left-hander the Tigers would have preferred carrying as a counter to their all-right-handed corps of Justin Verlander, Jordan Zimmermann, Anibal Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey.
But that’s a preference in slow retreat as Norris’ spring camp looks more and more
like an exercise in snags.
Even before Tuesday’s game, Ausmus said the Tigers “definitely need to see a step forward” from a pitcher whose ceiling is lofty but whose experience is thin. Norris opened neatly Tuesday, whipping 93-mph fastballs and getting lead-off batter Kevin Pillar on a ground-out. All seemed fine.
“His velocity was real strong on those first 10 pitches,” Ausmus said. “Then you could tell something wasn’t right.”
Norris was slapped instantly with a single, walk and Troy Tulowitzki’s sky-scraping home run onto the berm in left-center field. The next batter doubled and, a couple of pitches into Justin Smoak’s at-bat, Norris called for trainer Kevin Rand.
The Tigers don’t expect any lengthy issue with Norris’ back, although the same ills — sourced to a weight-room mishap — quashed his last start.
His exit also leaves the Tigers with a handful of health issues two weeks before Opening Day against the Marlins at Miami.
Victor Martinez is dealing with a bad hamstring, while reliever Alex Wilson is a probable bet to miss at least the early days of the season because of a slow recovery from a shoulder malady.
“Victor is up in the air, Norris now is up in the air, and Wilson is up in the air,” Ausmus said, explaining why his final 25-man roster is just as much in flux. “It’s kind of a devolving situation.”
That much was evident on a day the Blue Jays had 23 hits, beating up on old and young alike. Bobby Parnell, who isn’t likely to make the big-league team, was socked for five runs. A pair of minor-leaguers, Dustin Molleken and Whit Mayberry, who were called to duty when Norris headed for the clubhouse, also were whacked for a collective five runs.
“Let’s be honest,” Ausmus said, “the Blue Jays clubbed the ball.”
The Tigers did not. They had three hits as a heavy crowd of 9,041 turned out on a day that pushed 80 degrees with a crystal blue sky and a sun so bright it blinded the likes of Ian Kinsler, who never saw a pop-up that fell for a hit.
Nick Castellanos drove in the lone Tigers run on a long ground-rule double to left-center in the first.
If there was a pitching-plus on the part of a Tigers reliever competing for a bullpen job, Bruce Rondon qualified, even with a choppy inning that featured two hits (one a bouncer for a single) and a walk alongside three strikeouts. The last whiff came on a called-strike fastball that hit 100 mph.
The Tigers are off today, the lone off-day big-league teams enjoy during their long spring camp rehearsal.