Tigers’ Norris not satisfied with uneven spring debut

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Tampa, Fla. — He has a blue-ribbon arm and five-alarm spirit.

Sometimes they clash, the power and the fire, when Daniel Norris pitches.

The Tigers saw plenty of each Tuesday at Steinbrenner Field when Norris, the 23-year-old, left-handed prodigy who could be precious to Detroit’s 2017 rotation, had a bumpy Grapefruit League stint in a 9-5 loss to the Yankees.

Norris threw mostly fastballs that had James McCann’s catcher’s mitt popping like cannon fire. But the pitch count reached 40 with two gone in the second inning, and Norris was excused from what then was a scoreless game.

BOX SCORE: Yankees 9, Tigers 5

“About as bad as a first outing could go, as far as delivery,” said the man who highlighted Toronto’s trade offer when the Tigers and Blue Jays hooked up on a David Price swap in July 2015. “I’m probably my biggest critic, so I’m not happy.”

Norris allowed one hit — a single through the left-side infield hole in the first — and no runs, while striking out one and walking one.

But he pitched with too many three-ball counts and saw only seven Yankees batters. While there was no scoreboard radar gun at Steinbrenner Field, it was clear Norris’ fastball was hitting the mid 90s.

“I thought the stuff was there — the command wasn’t,” said Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, whose team slipped to 2-3 in Grapefruit League tussles. “No red flags anywhere. It was his first spring start so you don’t expect he’ll have command.”

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Norris was neither happy with his control, nor with the way in which any of his four pitches behaved. A big part of the problem, he acknowledged, was “adrenalin” that threw his mechanics out of whack.

“Then I tried to compensate,” he said of his high-throttle delivery, “and I got too rotational and I started cutting the ball off.”

In that respect, Norris said, he wouldn’t overly worry about problems he already had analyzed and knew would be smoothed ahead of his next start.

“It really is a quick fix,” he said. “I know exactly what I was doing.”

That’s essential, of course, if Norris is headed for regular shifts in Ausmus’ rotation, which is absolutely the plan for a pitcher whom talent snoops generally agree could become one of the big leagues’ better left-handers.

But it won’t happen until those pitch counts recede.

“With a young guy like that,” Ausmus said, “he’s going to have to learn how to do it. That’s the difference between going four innings and six innings.”

The Tigers had parallel issues Tuesday with several of Norris’ successors.

Drew VerHagen was high-altitude with too many pitches, which led to home runs by Gary Sanchez and Chris Carter, as well as a deep double from Chase Headley.

VerHagen was socked for four runs on five hits, including a walk, in 1-2/3 innings. But he also struck out three, thanks mostly to a high-rpm fastball that has VerHagen and the Tigers looking at him again as a starter.

“Similar to Norris,” Ausmus said. “The stuff was there, the command wasn’t.”

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Left-handed reliever Jairo Labourt was another of Tuesday’s Tigers pitching casualties, again because he was reckless in the two-thirds of an inning he endured.

Labourt, who has a high-caliber rifle for an arm and a notoriously small-bore sense for the strike zone, arrived along with Norris and Matthew Boyd in the whopping 2015 trade with Toronto.

His linescore Tuesday was reflective of past issues: seven batters faced, three hits, four runs, two walks, two strikeouts.

Bruce Rondon was also nicked for a run and two hits in his lone inning Tuesday.

“One of those days,” said Ausmus, who made sure to praise Dustin Molleken and William Cuevas on their combined 2 1/3 innings of hitless support. “Early spring games. Kind of similar with everyone, with the exception of Cuevas and Molleken.”

The Tigers were down, 8-0, in the seventh before rookie Dominic Ficociello, a switch-hitting corner infielder drafted out of the University of Arkansas, lined a three-run homer into the right-field seats.

The Tigers got another homer from outfielder Alex Presley, as well as a RBI single from Dixon Machado.

They’ll play a pair of split-squad games Wednesday, at Publix Field in Lakeland against the Nationals, and at Dunedin against the Blue Jays.