Kissimmee, Fla. – Precisely where he pitches next, Daniel Norris isn’t sure. And neither are the Tigers. Publicly, anyway.
It appears as if Norris, who worked five innings Friday in a game the Tigers won in a 11-3 romp against the Braves at Disney World, will hang in Lakeland for at least a week or more to work in the sunshine against minor-leaguers, given that the Tigers won’t need five starters until well into April.
And that could be the best tonic for Norris, 24, a left-hander upon whom so much rides and in whom so much promise yet lives.
“We want to keep him in the rotation and keep him stretched out,” said Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire, speaking in the visitors’ clubhouse after the Tigers ripped 17 hits to wash away Atlanta’s early 3-0 lead.
The issue for Norris and the Tigers is two-fold as they contemplate pitchers they’ll take north on Tuesday as they break camp and head for Opening Day, Thursday against the Pirates, at Comerica Park.
It is expected Mike Fiers will begin next week’s regular season on the disabled list. That ostensibly makes room for Norris as an instant rotation piece.
But, again – with a lighter schedule in the early days, five starters are unnecessary, while the Tigers see no advantage to making Norris a long reliever, which might be a helpful way for him to get work. Lots of it, perhaps.
The Tigers also understand that Norris needs all the regular rotation duty he can get. That much was obvious Friday as he tossed 85 pitches in his five innings, 45 of them for strikes. He walked four batters. He allowed only three hits and had to pitch out of some early mud, courtesy of defense Gardenhire described as “ugly,” among other words. But this was not a firm performance and Norris knew it.
“It was something I’d been better about all spring, but I kind of backtracked today,” he said, speaking of his control and command. “I got a little haywire. But I practiced damage control.”
That, he did. The Tigers blew a fly ball in the first inning that Leonys Martin misplayed. (“You don’t want to hear the explanation,” Gardenhire said, with a snarl and half-smile.) John Hicks botched a ground ball at first for an error, while Niko Goodrum, who started at shortstop Friday, did the same in the second inning.
Five-out innings are not a pitcher’s friend. Norris, though, wriggled through the first as the Braves scored twice. The only other run he allowed was a home run in the third to Freddie Freeman.
“I love that,” Norris said, speaking of how, ironically, he welcomes jams because of the challenge they present. “For me, it’s a really good opportunity to say, ‘Hey, I’ve got your back.’ I know they’re not happy about it, but it’s a really good opportunity.”
If there were questions Friday about his repertoire, they began with a fastball that had a strained relationship with the strike zone, and tended to cruise in the high-80s range.
Norris topped out, rarely, at 91 mph, which is well beneath the 94-95 he tends to throw his heater.
Gardenhire, though, wasn’t bothered.
“He was throwing two-seamers a lot,” Gardenhire said of the fastball version that tends to sink and run at a lower velocity. “It’s something he’s been working on.”
The labors will continue, probably at Lakeland, as Norris pushes to become that every-five-day maestro the Tigers believed they were getting three years ago when he was the prime piece in a deal that sent David Price to the Blue Jays.
It helped Friday that those early, shaky innings were rinsed away by a big second half that saw the Tigers tie the game in the fifth on a bases-loaded double to left-center by the previously frustrated James McCann.
McCann arrived Friday at Champions Stadium batting .161. He ended the day with a pair of doubles and five RBIs.
“Sometimes it takes a little longer to find the swing than in other spring trainings,” said McCann, who added 20 pounds during the offseason, with “10 or 15 in the lower half.”
It was all by design, and McCann is delighted with how the extra weight and muscle have helped him, particularly behind the plate, where he says he feels stronger and more mobile.
McCann’s two doubles were part of a seven-doubles day for the Tigers, who also got a pair from Hicks, as well as two-run drives from hot prospect Daz Cameron (long, opposite-field drive to right-center) and from young outfielder Cam Gibson, who had a two-RBI drive to left.
Gabriel Quintana, who came to the Tigers as an offseason minor-league free agent, also had a double.
That left the relentless Goodrum to bag the Tigers’ lone home run Friday – a long drive to right-center in the ninth that was Goodrum’s fourth homer of the spring.
Goodrum is an infield-outfield handyman who was a one-time Twins second-round pick. He joined the Tigers as another offseason minor-league free agent and is batting .300 this spring with a 1.041 OPS.
Tigers relievers were mostly spotless Friday. Shane Greene, Buck Farmer, and Joe Jimenez all pitched hitless, scoreless frames, with Jimenez striking out two Braves batters.
Louis Coleman, signed during the offseason as one of the Tigers’ countless minor-league free agents, handed the Braves a leadoff walk in the ninth, followed by an infield single. But he put away the final three batters as the Tigers moved their Grapefruit League record to 11-14-4.