By: Will Burchfield
Daniel Norris swallowed a lump in his throat, took a deep breath and invoked the bible.
He had just been asked, after his third straight disappointing start on Wednesday night, if he ever worries about being demoted.
“Have you ever heard the story of the fiery furnace, with Nebuchadnezzar, (King of Babylon)?” Norris asked. “Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, they got thrown into the fiery furnace and Nebuchadnezzar actually turned the heat up seven times. There’s a reason that God let that happen, because it takes the most impossible scenarios to be given the glory and to show his mighty power.”
A long pause ensued.
“That’s all I got for you,” Norris added.
The story is a lesson in perseverance, in the fact that sometimes things must get worse before they can get better. Things can’t get much worse, at the moment, for the 24-year-old Norris.
He surrendered seven hits and five runs over four innings in a 5-4 loss to the Giants on Wednesday, his third consecutive start in which he’s allowed five runs. He is 4-7 on the season with a 5.29 ERA.
Once again, he started strong but came undone when the Giants offense applied the heat in the fourth inning.
“He’s still very talented, albeit raw talent,” said Brad Ausmus. “His work effort is outstanding, he cares about the right things, almost cares so much about the right things that he wants to be so good so fast that it can get in his way.”
Asked if he’s prone to overthinking things on the mound, Norris, his voice beginning to crack, said, “I care a lot, put it that way. I care, I care a lot.”
Is it possible that he cares too much?
“I hear it all the time that I care too much, but I’ve always been that way. Being here is what I dreamed of, so if you don’t care about it then it’s not your biggest dream — and I’ve got big dreams,” said Norris.
“The thing is,” he added, “I’ve had success before and I’ve had failure before, I know how to deal with it all. I’m in a bit of funk right now but there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”
Norris is always downcast after a loss, more so than most players. But Wednesday night was extreme. He was visibly shaken, especially by any suggestion of a demotion to Triple-A Toledo.
Before Norris spoke with media, pitching coach Rich Dubie pulled him into his office for about a 10-minute heart-to-heart.
“We talked about a lot of things, one being that there’s been plenty of pitchers, Hall-of-Famers even, that have struggled in their first couple years. I think for me, there’s times where I’ve shown it, what I’m capable of, so I don’t lose confidence. I know I got it, and I just gotta get it back,” Norris said.
Over his last 10 starts in 2016, the southpaw pitched to a 3.04 ERA with 71 strikeouts in 69 1/3 innings. He’s had a hard time repeating that success this season, hindered mostly by a lack of command.
“For me, the most frustrating thing is I understand what’s at stake for this team. I just wanna go out there and win, and I’ve been doing the opposite. I know they’re frustrated, I’m frustrated. It hurts more, I guess, the more you care,” he said.
Norris maintained that he’s still having fun when he’s on the mound, despite the rocky results. He pointed to the 2012 season, when he had an 8.44 ERA in the minors, as proof that he can find enjoyment amid his personal tribulations.
“It was tough, I didn’t know what was going on. I was a big signing for the Blue Jays and I was really struggling, but I learned to appreciate the little things: playing catch every day, feeling the ball hit the mitt, running, working out. And that’s where I’m at right now. So, yeah, I’m having a lot of fun,” he said.
Often times, Norris looks like a victim of his own talent. Knowing how good his stuff is, he tries to do too much.
“I think I am my own worst enemy at times,” he said. “I get going too fast, I forget to breathe. I go out there and I just wanna be good, and that’s when it gets in my way, is trying too hard to expedite that process.”
There’s a good chance Norris won’t be in the Tigers rotation after the All-Star break. A trip to Toledo almost feels inevitable. He spoke to this possibility on Wednesday night.
“I’m gonna go wherever I’m planted. For me, every time I wake up it’s a time to get better. It doesn’t matter where I am, I’m just gonna work,” he said.
Surely, there are better days ahead.