For Tigers' Daniel Norris, another rough lesson in up-down journey

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
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Cleveland — Experience gained.

It’s one of the primary aims of this season for the rebuilding Tigers, and left-hander Daniel Norris got a fistful of experience Wednesday night.

He was cold-called into the game after seven pitches when starter Jordan Zimmermann was felled by a line drive to the face.

“I’ve never even envisioned that kind of scenario,” Norris said. “You’re going on pure adrenaline right there. I didn’t even get to stretch or anything like that. Just run out there and throw until you feel decent.”

Manager Ron Gardenhire tried to help him.

“I told him when he came to the mound, ‘You have all the time you need,’ ” Gardenhire said. “When I got back to the dugout and started writing stuff down, I looked up and they were starting the inning.

“Whether he was too freakin’ excited, I don’t know for sure. But I was surprised he was ready that quick. That’s probably just experience. I told him to take all the time he needed. Whether he did that or not, I can’t tell you, but he got ready really quick.”

It was a precursor to a very strange outing for Norris. He was sharp the first time through the Indians order. He got through the first and pitched scoreless second and third innings.

But it all fell apart in the fourth. Six singles led to four runs and a quick hook.

“I was gassed,” Norris said. “I didn’t have anything left in the tank.”

A decrease in pitch velocity has been evident since the beginning of spring training. Last season, Norris threw his fastball between 92 and 96 mph. This year, it’s been 89-91. His slider last season averaged 87.8 mph. This season, it’s down to 83 mph.

“I’m not sure,” Norris said, when asked why he thought the velocity was down. “I’ve done a lot of mechanical stuff and I’m still kind of getting used to that. I think it’ll creep its way back up eventually.

“I can’t worry too much about it. It’s been 91-92 all year. It’ll come back. Everything feels fine. My arm doesn’t feel dead or anything last night.”

The problem Wednesday was less about velocity than it was command. His fastball was cutting. Instead of maintaining its plane, the pitch was swerving away from left-handed hitters and in to right-handed hitters.

It’s not what he wants.

“I couldn’t throw my fastball for a strike,” he said. “It was cutting a lot. So the Indians eliminated that pitch and just sat on my slider in that fourth inning.”

The accidental cutter, as Norris jokingly called it, led to some discrepancies on the league’s pitch-tracking devices. Of his 64 pitches, Baseball Savant read 38 as sliders that registered in velocity from 79 to 89 mph. That wasn’t accurate.

“The 88-89 mph ones were fastballs that cut,” Norris said. “My true slider was 82-83.”

But he still threw more sliders than fastballs, which, again, is not a good recipe.

“He was commanding his slider a lot better than his fastball,” catcher James McCann said. “Which is why we went to it so often. Plus, we had success with (left-handers) Francisco Liriano and Matthew Boyd throwing sliders against them.

“Anytime you come in out of the ’pen, you’ve got to find a way to be efficient, especially in that situation, and see how many innings you can eat. He didn’t have the same fastball command he had before and that kind of led to throwing a lot of sliders.”

As for the decreased velocity, McCann thinks that’s born out of the command issues, as well.

“Anytime you don’t feel like you can command the baseball, you will have a sense of not raring back and letting it go,” he said.

Norris has been working tirelessly on finding the right stride length and the proper arm angle. He’s worked on eliminating the violent recoil at the end of his delivery. The results of all that work remain spotty — there one minute, gone the next.

He pitched much better in his first outing of the season, 3.1 innings and six strikeouts against the White Sox last Thursday.

“I don’t know if he just ran out of gas or whatever,” Gardenhire said. “His breaking ball was really snapping early and then it got flat in that last inning. It could just be a mechanical thing where he’s striding out too far and not getting to his release point.”

But, as Gardenhire said, the lumps he took in the fourth inning, the experience of coming into a game cold, should serve him well in the long run.

“It’s just inexperience,” he said.

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