DETROIT — It took an adjustment in called pitches by Alex Avila to get Daniel Norris through the day. His fastball wasn’t working like he wanted, and he hit a general fatigue wall early on. So, Avila switched Norris’ focus.
“After the second and third, I just kind of got tired, so I had to start really focus on making pitches instead of trusting my stuff,” Norris said. “The first two or three innings, I was just kind of letting it eat, and then after that, I realized I was a little tired, so I needed to focus on making pitches, and that’s when I started having more success.”
Norris had 16 first-pitch strikes with his offspeed pitches. Of the final 12 batters he faced, 10 went for outs. He had only two strikeouts, but the second was a doozy. Dustin Pedroia had singled in the first and grounded out in the second, but the slider that Norris fed him in the fifth ended with Pedroia swinging so badly that he dropped to a knee.
“I felt, the first couple innings, probably the best I’ve felt in a while,” Norris said. “The ball was coming out good and as the game went on, I just showed myself I can get a really good out without my best stuff.”
By then, Norris was cruising, and even in the sixth when he gave up a single and a double with a double play between the two, he didn’t appear to have lost control. The ball left his hand with ease and he was at 86 pitches through six innings. Where Norris needs to improve on — and it’s been a work in progress since last year — is getting past that seventh-inning mark.
Putting in a full seven innings at the major league level has proven largely elusive, for Norris. He did it twice last year (one run per) but an Aug. 7, 2016 start where he went 71⁄3 innings was the last time. If the Tigers are going to count on him, he’s going to need to build his pitching endurance, and that’s just going to take time.
Sunday’s start was an encouraging start, though, that even when he’s without his fastball, Norris is still difficult to face. He looked more confident and in control on the mound than at the start of 2016.
“He pitched pretty good for not having his best stuff today,” Avila said. “He struggled a little bit with his command on the fastball. He went to a lot of his offspeed stuff as the game went on to keep them off balance. He was commanding that a little bit better, so we had a good mix of that going.
“He looks good going forward. I think he definitely will be much better than he showed today, and he threw pretty well. He was able to make some big pitches when he needed to.”
The Tigers’ starting rotation is a young one, with Matthew Boyd (26) the oldest of the three youngsters, but they’ve handled the workload well. Boyd struggled in his first start but looked strong in spring training, and should bounce back.
With Justin Verlander and Jordan Zimmermann anchoring the rotation and having put up their own solid starts, the rotation should finally be the least of the Tigers’ concerns this year — for a change. The bullpen has once again become a sore spot early on, so that the rotation seems settled will be a relief for the team, and fans.
There are still kinks to be worked out as the season progresses, but when Norris has all of his pitches working, he should be a formidable presence on the mound.