Dunedin, Fla. — It was very easy for Daniel Norris early, then much tougher later. The positive way he responded to the latter Wednesday will be the club’s primary takeaway from the 5-4 walk-off exhibition loss to the Blue Jays.
“It was nice to go out there and face some old friends,” said Norris, the former Blue Jay who pitched back at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium for the first time since being traded in July 2015. “It was kind of fun. I was pleased with almost everything.”
Norris, in full command of his fastball (94-95 mph), faced one over the minimum through the first four innings. He had an eight-pitch first inning and a seven-pitch second. He struck out the side in the third. He induced three double-play balls.
Very good. A continuation of his fine work this spring. But the Tigers are waiting to see how he reacts under duress. Norris has a history of being consumed by his own competitive fires.
“No question he can be his worst enemy at times,” manager Brad Ausmus said.
The test came in the fifth inning — and he passed.
He hung a 1-0 change-up to Kevin Pillar for a leadoff single. Pillar went to third on a wild pitch and uncharacteristic wild throw to second by catcher James McCann. Then he walked Justin Smoak and gave up an RBI double to Darrell Ceciliani on a hanging curve ball.
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A run in, runners at second and third with nobody out — Norris didn’t come apart. He locked back in, striking out Darwin Barney, giving up an RBI groundout to Ryan Goins and a flyout to Troy Tulowitzki.
“I was pleased with the way that inning came out,” Norris said. “I didn’t get banged around the yard. I didn’t get going too fast. I just worked my way out.”
Ausmus was pleased, too.
“He had to gather himself a couple of times, but he’s learning,” he said. “He’s maturing as a pitcher.”
Norris threw 69 pitches, 43 strikes, allowing the two runs on four hits, with two walks and a hits batsman. He struck out five.
“I had a runner on in every inning and in the middle of it I had some 3-1 counts,” Norris said. “That’s not what you want, but at this point it’s good for me to have to deal with it. I had to bear down and not walk guys — and I came back and got them.”
Norris seems to have put a choke hold the No. 4 starter spot in the Tigers rotation.
The Tigers had their hands full with Blue Jays starter Marco Estrada. Nick Castellanos ripped a 3-0 pitch down the line in left for an RBI double in the first inning. Estrada proceeded to retire the next 14 Tigers in a row.
The Tigers took the lead in the ninth inning. Dominic Ficociello, who has had another strong spring, blasted a three-run homer, on a 1-2 pitch over the wall in right-center field – taking the Tigers from 2-1 down to 4-2 up.
It was his fourth home run of the spring. He hit five home runs all of last season at Double A Erie.
But the Jays had the last laugh. With two outs and runners on the corners, right-hander Angel Nesbitt was tagged for a three-run, walk-off home run by Shane Opitz.