Dunedin, Fla. — Back in December, Austin Romine, then making his free-agent rounds around the league, met with Tigers’ general manager Al Avila and several other members of the front office, including manager Ron Gardenhire.
Romine asked about playing time. And as he was getting the typical speech about having to earn it like everybody else, he locked eyes with Gardenhire.
“I just looked at him and shook my head,” Gardenhire said. “’I kind of whispered, 'You’re playing.’”
After going through an arduous 114-loss season with a trio of inexperienced catchers, the one thing Gardenhire wanted almost more than anything else this offseason was a veteran behind the plate.
“Those young guys did fine, but we needed a veteran to help some of our kids out,” Gardenhire said Wednesday after the Grapefruit League game against the Blue Jays was canceled due to rain in the middle of the fourth inning. “He’s that guy and he’ll be good for us.”
Romine gave a taste of that veteran leadership before the rains came Wednesday. Lefty Daniel Norris made his first start of the spring and he pitched well, with two scoreless innings with two strikeouts and no walks.
But in the second inning, he got two quick strikes on Travis Shaw and Danny Jansen and ended up letting both back into the count. He got Shaw to line out softly on a 3-2 pitch and Jansen doubled on a 2-2 pitch. He also got two quick strikes on Brandon Drury and threw two balls before striking him out with a change-up.
“I heard one of their conversations in the dugout,” Gardenhire said. “It was about, instead of throwing a pitch when you have a chance to put him down, he was trying to guide it. I really liked what Romine was saying to him. Finish him right there.
“Why waste pitches? Just finish him. When you try to guide it, it spins. But when you really throw it, you can put the guy away because hitters are at a huge disadvantage with two strikes. Our catcher is going to be fantastic.”
Romine had a two-run home run — a 400-footer to center — and knocked in three runs in his three at-bats, too.
“I want him trying to make our pitchers better,” Gardenhire said. “Not just, ‘Hey, you threw the ball great.’ Make them better.”
One of the corollaries of stepping on hitter’s necks when you have them in 0-2 holes is quicker outs, which allows pitchers to go deeper into games. And going deeper into games is Norris’ last hurdle.
“Toward the end of last year I felt like the way I was pitching, that would’ve been the first time in my career I would’ve been going consistently deep into games,” said Norris, who was on an innings-restriction for his last nine starts. “I knew I was coming out after three innings no matter what, but my pitch count was never too high.
“I was in shape to go farther, and that’s what I am looking for.”
Last season was also the first year since he came to the Tigers in 2015 that he pitched a full season without any time on the injured list. The corollary there is, good health breeds confidence and the conviction Gardenhire is looking for when he’s ahead in the count.
“Yeah, my confidence comes from my health,” Norris said. “I’ve had plenty of bad games healthy and I was never too worried about that because I felt good. But, if I’m healthy then I am confident I can compete no matter what.
“Right now I feel good and my confidence is there.”
Wednesday was a trust-building day between Norris and Romine — literally. It got so dark by Norris’ second inning, Romine could only hope that Norris was reading the signs correctly.
“Romine was like, ‘Man, I hope he’s not guessing,’” Norris said, laughing. “It got pretty dark.”