Rapidly improving Daniel Norris giving Tigers decision-makers options to ponder

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Tigers starting pitcher Daniel Norris pitched three scoreless innings Tuesday against the Red Sox.

Fort Myers, Fla. — It’s probably too soon to say Daniel Norris is fixed. But it seems clear he is mending, rapidly.

“It’s unreal,” Norris said, after pitching three scoreless innings Tuesday in the Tigers' 4-3 Grapefruit League win over the Red Sox. “It’s coming back, man. Everything we’ve been working on is starting to become more natural. I’m starting to throw a baseball the way a person is supposed to.”

It was no split-squad team, either. Norris, who struggled in his early starts, had to go through essentially the defending champs’ regular lineup.

“I was glad to see J.D. (Martinez) in there,” Norris said. “I wanted to face him. I grew up with Mookie (Betts), too. We played against each other and were on the same team in some tournaments.… It’s who we’re going to face in the season when we play them, so you’ve got to battle.

“It shouldn’t affect you if you execute your pitches.”

Betts and Martinez both singled off him, two of the four hits he allowed. He also struck out three and walked one.

“I’m happy to feel this progress,” he said. “But I can’t wait to keep going.”

If he does keep it going, if that velocity keeps inching up, back to where it was before he had groin surgery, where then might Norris fit into the Tigers' plans? Presently, he is presumably the sixth starter. 

But if he's one of the 13 best pitchers the Tigers have, might the Tigers consider bringing him north as a bullpen piece?

"I'm not going to sit and say he could be a long reliever or whatever," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "We're going to put together a staff and at the end of the spring training we will figure out where they all fit.

"You start trying to do that now, who knows what might happen, injuries and the whole package."

Clearly, using Norris out of the bullpen has been discussed, at least organizationally. But what hasn't been settled is whether it would be best for Norris to start in the rotation at Toledo and get consistent starts, or to be available for long relief, pitching sporadically, with the Tigers.

"The biggest thing for us, (Norris) came into camp as one of our starters," Gardenhire said. "And we are going to get him stretched out to where he is able to do that. If we don't decide he's a starter, then we will have him stretched out to where we can use him in a lot of different ways."

That Norris is even back in the conversation for a roster spot is a huge jump from where he was after his first couple of outings, when he had no velocity or life on his pitches.

"It's nice to see," Gardenhire said. "He was hitting 92 (mph) today and I think there's going to be more in there once he's more confident." 

The difference isn’t just an uptick in velocity. His fastball was consistently at 91 and 92 mph Tuesday, but with the mechanical adjustments he’s made recently, there’s more life, more finish, on all his pitches.

Asked if he thinks he’s cleared the hurdle once and for all, Norris said, “I two-foot hopped over that hurdle. It’s huge for me to get that angle back and have that life on it. If I am 92-93 (mph), I can live with that.

“And I am not even reaching back right now. Just that one adjustment we made, the angle and the life is there, a couple of ticks up in velocity — once that becomes muscle memory I can be more free and easy.”

Acting on a tip from starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann, Norris worked to get a full extension in his delivery, concentrating on finishing facing the on-deck circle when he releases the pitch.

He got seven swings and misses, four with his fastball. He stuck out Andrew Benintendi, the first batter he faced, on three pitches, swinging through a 91-mph fastball on the last. His slider and curveball also were effective. He threw 55 pitches (32 strikes), which was the most he’s thrown this spring.

"That's the thing, I got so tired, but even with the walk, I made good pitches," Norris said. "I felt tired in my body but I still had the angle and I was still making pitches. It wasn't like I had to really bear down. I just had to trust it.

"I was still making good pitches, they still had shape and I was keeping it down in the zone. That was good to see."

Norris has already spoken to both Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson about his role this season. 

"I told them I just want to help the team," he said. "I don't care if it's starting or in the pen. I just want to be on the team. That's all I said."

Around the horn

Shane Greene, Joe Jimenez, Blaine Hardy and Buck Farmer all pitched scoreless innings. And after prospect Kyle Funkhouser pitched a clean eighth, the Tigers had posted 18 consecutive scoreless innings. That was before the Red Sox rallied for three runs in the bottom of the ninth (all runs charged to Funkhouser).

... Jordy Mercer hit a two-run home run off former Tiger David Price. It was his second homer of the spring.

...The Tigers tacked on runs later with an RBI double by Kody Eaves and a sacrifice fly by Jake Rogers.

...Tigers second baseman and leadoff hitter Josh Harrison got on base three times, with a single and two walks.

Injury updates

Reliever Drew VerHagen, who has been shut down an inflamed nerve in his shoulder, is expected to resume his throwing program either Wednesday or Thursday.

Right fielder Nick Castellanos, bruised left hand, is expected to take treatment on Wednesday — which is an off-day for the team — and return to baseball activity Thursday.


Twitter: @cmccosky