By: Will Burchfield
It was a two-seam fastball that Daniel Norris was throwing on Monday night, Brad Ausmus said.
No it wasn’t, Norris replied.
“I threw zero two-seamers actually. For the first time all year, it was all four-seamers.”
Never mind, anyway. Norris delivered his best start of the 2016 season, racking up a career high 11 strikeouts in 6.1 innings to help the Tigers to a 4-3 win over the Twins.
“Probably the best outing he’s had,” said Ian Kinsler. “I think his first outing (after) we got him in the trade last year was in Baltimore and he threw an excellent game then, but tonight I think was probably his best outing. It was good to see.”
Norris went 7.1 innings in that start against the Orioles, giving up four hits, one run and striking out five. Since then, he’s struggled to pitch deep into games at the Major League level, undone by long at-bats and high pitch counts.
Norris wasn’t exactly flawless in this regard on Monday night, but he was sharp enough to pitch into the sixth inning. He surrendered just five hits and two runs – both of which came via homers – while his 11 strikeouts were the most he’s tallied in a game at any level since 2014.
He has now held opposing teams to three runs or less in ten straight starts, just the second Tigers pitcher to do so since 1969. Anibal Sanchez ripped off 12 such starts to start the 2014 season.
But afterward, Norris couldn’t get his mind off his two mistakes.
“You just you look at the homers and it’s frustrating because I wanted to keep the lead and ended up not doing that,” he said. “So I have to be more consistent and more efficient with that, but I think it was one of my more dominant performances.”
Norris admitted the home runs would have been easier to dismiss if the game hadn’t been so tight. Still, it speaks to his desire to do right by the team, a humble outlook that pops up time and time again in his conversations with the media.
“I thank the lord every day to go out there with this opportunity to pitch. For the (Tigers) to continue to throw me out there every fifth day, I’m just happy to pitch, man. To be in this situation, with where we are in the wild card and the division, I couldn’t ask for a better time to go out there and throw,” Norris said.
He went out there throwing heat on Monday night, blowing hitters away with 95 mile-per-hour gas up in the zone. And just when it seemed like they were ready for his fastball, he would drop in a slider or a change-up. It was smart, methodical pitching by a pitcher whose ceiling continues to rise.
“The fastball was coming out of his hand real good. It was crisp, it was getting on hitters up top, he was getting swings and misses. Early on the slider was real good, some chases in the dirt on that.
I would imagine one of the better outings he’s had at the big league level,” said Ausmus.
In all, Norris recorded 16 swings and misses on Monday night, 11 of which came on his four-seam fastball. Even the pitch to Dozier that ended up in the left-field bullpen was one that he executed by design.
“It was just one of the spots that he hits homers,” Norris explained. “So kind of kicking myself about that.
“But other than that, I was just attacking guys and putting them away when I needed to.”
Norris has always attacked hitters at this level. It’s the putting-them-away part that has tripped him up, a hurdle that he mostly cleared in his latest start. The crowd at Comerica Park acknowledged this as he walked off the mound, giving the 23-year-old a standing ovation that left him smiling afterward.
“It’s pretty special, especially where we are as a team. We’re right in the thick of it and you’re starting to get that anxious feeling, even when I came back out in the dugout and we took the lead. It’s starting to get really real for us as far as what we can accomplish as a team, so it’s really exciting,” he said.
The Tigers, after a big 4-3 win, were talking about Norris. And there was Norris, after his finest start of the season, talking about the team.