Ambushed: Big-bang fourth inning KOs Norris, Tigers

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit — Daniel Norris is not the first talented young pitcher to battle inconsistency. Far from it. And because his raw stuff, his four-pitch mix, is as dynamic as he’s shown it to be, the Tigers have been and will continue to be patient with him.

That’s not to say they won’t give him a kick in the pants every now and again.

“It’s kind of been the same story with Daniel Norris since his arrival,” manager Brad Ausmus said after Norris gave up five runs in 3 2/3 innings in the Tigers' 8-2 loss to the Kansas City Royals on Wednesday. “He’s better at fighting his emotions on the mound but it’s still been the inconsistency of throwing strikes.

“The stuff has always been there. That’s why you see flashes of dominance. But we’ve got to see some growth on the command side. You have to be able to locate the ball better at the big-league level or nights like tonight happen.”

BOX SCORE: Royals 8, Tigers 2

Whether that kick in the pants could eventually land him a get-right trip to Triple-A Toledo, Ausmus would not say.

“That’s something I wouldn’t discuss with you,” he said.

Norris’ outing showed why they say momentum in baseball begins and ends with the next day’s starting pitcher.

The Tigers were just beginning to feel good about themselves again, winning two straight games and playing some crisp and clean baseball. Then came the fourth inning on Wednesday.

The Royals ambushed Norris, batting around and scoring four times.

“Rough day,” Norris said. “Hard to swallow.”

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Norris, who has now given up 10 runs in his last 9 2/3 innings as his ERA rose to 5.00, pitched three relatively snappy innings (32 pitches), and trailed 1-0 entering the fourth.

He got Lorenzo Cain to ground out. Eric Hosmer then tapped one over the mound. Shortstop Jose Iglesias appeared to let the ball roll to second baseman Ian Kinsler, who had no play at first.

That harmless-seeming infield hit opened the floodgates. The next two hitters, in a span of three pitches, hit 881-feet worth of home runs off Norris.

Salvador Perez hit a 3-0 fastball 451 feet high off the bricks beyond the visitor’s bullpen in left center field — between Hal Newhouser's No. 16 and Al Kaline's No. 6 wall plaques. Mike Moustakas followed with a 430-foot bomb off the bricks in right-center field.

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“I threw a fastball away to Perez and he got extended on it,” Norris said. “The pitch to Moustakas, I just missed. Tried to go down and away and it went up and in.”

Just like that, it was 4-0, and Norris couldn’t regain his footing. He gave up an RBI double to Alex Gordon and an infield single to Whit Merrifield before he was pulled.

“I just have to figure a way to not let that big inning happen,” Norris said. “I wasn’t able to get the big out when I needed it. I have to bear down and make a pitch. I wasn’t able to do that.”

The issue, primarily, is mechanical.

“The stuff is there and at times he can make hitters look real bad,” Ausmus said. “Then he loses his release point, loses his command. And whether he gets behind in the count and has to come in the middle of the plate, or he misses his spot, they hit it.

“It was similar to his last start.”

Norris gave up five runs in the first three innings in Seattle, but regathered and fought his way through six. There was no regathering on Wednesday.

“I’ve been working on a lot of things and I think I just have to simplify it,” Norris said. “Just go out and throw the baseball. I’ve been thinking about it too much right now. I’ve got to trust my stuff and get ahead of guys and put them away when I can.”

The Tigers got back into contention with a couple of home runs.

Alex Avila hit a solo home run in the fourth (his 11th) and Miguel Cabrera hit one in the sixth (10th). Both were opposite-field blasts off Royals starter Ian Kennedy. It was Cabrera’s second home run in the last two games.

But that’s all the damage they did against Kennedy, who went seven strong innings. Other than the two home runs, he gave up just three well-spaced singles — two to Nick Castellanos.

Right-hander Warwick Saupold locked the Royals down through the seventh. He got out of the fourth inning, getting Cain on a line drive that left fielder Justin Upton snagged before slipping and falling on his back.

He proceeded to dispatch nine straight hitters, throwing 3 1/3 shutout innings.

“He covered some innings for us,” Ausmus said. “We didn’t have to burn up the bullpen, which was important with a doubleheader looming on Saturday. He seems to be real comfortable in the role he’s in.”

The Royals were able to nick him in the eighth, though. Moustakas led off with a bloop double that fell in front of a diving Mikie Mahtook in center. A single by Alcides Escobar moved him to third and he scored on a groundout by Gordon.

It was the first run Saupold has given up in his last six outings covering nine innings. He allowed six hits over that span, holding opponents to a .162 batting average.

The Royals tacked on two off Alex Wilson in the ninth — doubles by Cain and Perez, and a single by Jorge Soler.

For Norris, while the mechanics are the main issue, there is a mental component to his struggles, as well.

His confidence has been strained.

“When it doesn’t go your way, you almost try harder and that can be counterproductive,” he said. “Like tonight, it can just blow up in your face. You don’t want to get down on yourself, but we are trying to win ballgames. And I want to be better for the team.” @cmccosky