'Happy to be here': Tigers' Norris back after four-month layoff

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Daniel Norris

New York -- Simply seeing that name above his locker -- Daniel Norris -- late Friday afternoon at Yankee Stadium seemed like a moment stolen from a past Tigers season.

In fact, it has been only four months since he last dressed and worked out of the Tigers clubhouse. Four months since a torn groin that required surgery was diagnosed and came within a month of ending Norris' fourth year with the Tigers.

Friday he was back with the team. Saturday, at 4:05 p.m., he will be asked to pitch against the Yankees in his first Tigers appearance since an April 29 start at Baltimore.

"Just happy to be here," Norris said Friday as he finished lacing shoes at his reclaimed locker, inside the visitor's clubhouse, where the Tigers were preparing for a game against the Yankees. "It's definitely been an interesting year."

He later acknowledged: "I didn't know if I would pitch again this year."

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Norris is a rare one, all right. He smiles easily and so often enjoys playful conversation. It's almost as if it helps balance more serious dialogue about, say, baseball.

That topic, after all, can get a bit uncomfortable. Norris has been with the Tigers for 37 months, ever since a July deadline deal sent David Price to the Blue Jays and delivered to the Tigers three left-handed pitchers: Norris, Matthew Boyd and Jairo Labourt.

Norris was the acknowledged first prize. He had second-round draft status and a boxcar full of talent that began with a mid-90s fastball.

But then he got hurt. And he kept getting hurt. In nearly 3 1/2 seasons with the Tigers, Norris has pitched in 49 games. That amounts to a lot of time spent doing things other than appearing on big-league mounds.

He pitched in five games, two of them starts, during April. But the groin was becoming an issue, as that 5.87 ERA and 1.63 WHIP hints.

Daniel Norris: "It's definitely been an interesting year."

Now he hopes a long parade of back and groin ills have finally -- finally -- been stuffed into a doctor's archives. A man 25 years old wants to get on with throwing fastballs, curveballs and change-ups that more resemble his old pitching profile.

Whether that happens during the regular season's final four weeks, or waits until 2019, is a fair question, even Norris seems to acknowledge.

He feels great. His groin is healed. His arm is strong. And he has shown already enough durability to have tossed 72 pitches during August's rehab starts.

But as Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire confirmed when asked Friday, Norris' fastball velocity is "91, 92, averaging around 90," as he cited numbers from rehab reports.

That's well beneath the 94 he regularly hit last year and in previous, ever-interrupted stints with the Tigers.

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It isn't necessarily worrying the Tigers, or Norris. 

"Very excited about having him back," Gardenhire said Friday. "That kid's been through a lot. But he's very athletic. He's a good young pitcher. And now, it's all about health."

There had been talk of Norris perhaps working out of the bullpen as he heads into September, which in terms of Norris' timeline might be considered a prelude to next February's spring camp. 

But the Tigers see Norris as everyone, including Norris, sees him: as a starter who needs to work on returning to an old niche where his skills can flourish.

"I feel pretty good," Norris said of his rehab starts, the last of which was Sunday at Toledo and saw Norris last four innings, allowing four hits and a walk, and one run, all as he struck out four.

Again, the old question: Can he rediscover that fastball zip. It's essential for a starter, at least one who has always shown power and who has pitched primarily off his fastball.

"Obviously, I'm aware of that," he said, speaking of the lower radar-gun numbers that were evident last spring, and still hang with him. "I was always pretty much 94 prior to (this year's) surgery."

Norris said he is still bricking-up his body and strength and will continue to do so into next spring. He expects, at some point sooner rather than later, to reconnect with that mid-90s fastball. But he understands it might not happen until next season as his recovery timeline, he hopes, peaks.

He already can see progress. Last spring, he said, "I'd try and throw a fastball away and it would cut down the middle.

"Because of the groin."

Now, it at least behaves.

He sees September as a necessary next step. There was no point, he said, in continuing to throw to kids and off mounds at the Tigers' minor-league and rehab headquarters at Lakeland, Fla.

"I know what I'm capable of," Norris said. "I accept the challenge. Without a doubt, this (big leagues) is where you learn and grow."


Twitter @Lynn_Henning