Pitching in ‘hometown’ park a thrill for Tigers' Norris

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Atlanta — Afterward, he could barely speak. His throat, which has been sore for a few days, was shot.

But he still had no trouble expressing his unmitigated joy over what he’d just experienced. In a must-win game for the Tigers on Friday, at his boyhood ballpark against the team he grew up rooting for, Daniel Norris pitched six innings of four-hit shutout baseball, allowing just a pinch-hit homer to Brandon Snyder before leaving with two outs in the seventh, helping the Tigers to a 6-2 win over the Atlanta Braves.

“Honestly, I can’t thank God enough for the opportunity,” he said. “Not only the wild-card race and where we are as a team, but I grew up watching games here. I grew up in this park. Everything was so surreal just being out there — envisioning Chipper (Jones) in the box, stuff like that.

“That was cool.”

Norris is from Johnson City, Tenn. When he was in high school, he played summer ball in the Atlanta area.

“We’d have games at 11 or 1, and we would pack up and carpool to the (Braves) game,” he said. “We’d get in for like a buck in the upper deck and sneak down and watch games.”

He was fired up, for sure. But, unlike some of his starts in the past, he was able to harness his adrenaline and put it to productive use. He was throwing 95 and 96 mph right out of the gate — and he was throwing strikes.

“He’s grown quite a bit,” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. “He’s starting to learn how to control his emotions and concentrate on pitching. He’s starting to go deeper into games now.”

Norris, who threw a career-high 114 pitches Friday, has now allowed three runs or fewer in 19 straight starts. That’s the longest active streak in the American League. The Tigers have won six of his last seven starts, and in the one loss, to the Royals, he left with a 4-2 lead.

“The first thing that comes to my head is how much me and (pitching coach Rich) Dubee have worked,” Norris said. “Not only mechanics, because he’s helped me with some mechanical adjustments that make my stuff better without having to try so hard. Obviously I revert back sometimes, but just mentally he helps me revert back to that quicker.

“That’s him. He just helps me with that kind of stuff. He’s been great.”

Case in point: Norris began overthrowing his fastball in the second and third innings. He was getting ahead in the count and then letting hitters back in by throwing non-competitive pitches way high out of the zone.

Then, after a quick chat with Dubee, he again starting getting swings and misses on the high fastball.

“It was when I stopped trying to force it,” he said. “The second and third inning I was trying to do too much with it, and then I talked with Dubee. He was like, ‘Hey, you just got to relax and let it happen free and easy.’

“Immediately that helped me click back and start using it more effectively.”

Norris also had some good at-bats in the game. Without having any time to take batting practice, since he didn’t know he’d be starting the interleague game until Thursday’s game was washed out, he drew a walk, lined out hard to second and nearly beat out a routine grounder to second base.

“I was just out there having fun and playing baseball,” he said. “It makes it a complete game, just running out of the box as hard as you can trying to beat it out. ... It was just fun.”

Ausmus, though, wasn’t thrilled to see his starting pitcher making like Usain Bolt tearing down the first-base line.

“He’s a pretty good athlete and he does have some pop in his bat,” Ausmus said. “But I tried to explain to him, if you played in the National League and you start busting your butt every time you hit a ground ball, you will end up tiring yourself out when you get back to the mound the following inning.

“He told me he was going to do a drag bunt in his last at-bat. I told him, no. Just swing away. He’ll learn. He only knows one speed right now.”

Twitter.com: @cmccosky