For the second time in Detroit Tigers left-hander Daniel Norris’ career, he departed from the bullpen to pitch in the ninth inning. He last did this in 2014 for the Toronto Blue Jays in his second MLB appearance.
Six seasons later, Norris pitched a scoreless ninth in Wednesday’s 4-0 loss to the Kansas City Royals at Comerica Park. In 2020, the 27-year-old has taken on many roles — as a starter, piggyback starter, long-inning reliever, emergency reliever and reliever who can get three outs in a crucial moment.
Norris has pitched in 10 games this season but doesn’t have a defined responsibility. It has been more than five years since the organization acquired him from the Blue Jays in a package for David Price; still, finding the right fit hasn’t been easy.
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Of his 97 games for Detroit, he has started 77. With the rise of pitching prospects Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal (and more coming), it’s unclear if Norris fits in the starting rotation as the Tigers continue to rebuild.
“Through a lot of different scenarios here, it’s been up and down with him,” Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said Thursday. “We’re still trying to figure out what’s his best role. He’s all out, full bore every time he goes out there, kind of like a raging bull. He’s got good stuff. We see all of that. But there’s been some inconsistency with him. We just keep having to deal with that part of it.”
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He pitched in the ninth inning Wednesday because the Tigers didn’t want to use right-handers Jose Cisnero, Buck Farmer and Bryan Garcia. They all pitched Monday and will be called into action for a crucial four-game series with the Cleveland Indians as postseason hopes are on the line.
Yet Gardenhire wanted to keep the deficit at four runs, so he went with Norris. He has been reliable with a 3.47 ERA, 1.200 WHIP, 23 strikeouts and six walks in 23⅓ innings this season. Outside of his start Aug. 2, he has a 2.91 ERA working out of the bullpen.
“Norris is one of those guys I could use as a lefty to come in and get lefties out,” Gardenhire said. “He can spin the ball, but that was out of necessity last night. He was the one we thought could probably handle it easiest.”
The most noticeable difference in Norris’ approach from 2019, when he started 29 of 32 games, is the number of changeups he throws. He uses the pitch 29.3% of the time, up from 19% last year and 6.5% in 2018. His opponents are hitting .138 against that pitch.
Norris’ formula works out of the bullpen, but he wants to get back to the starting rotation. Right now, the Tigers don’t really know what to do with him.
“I’d love to start,” Norris said in August. “I love starting, but I wouldn’t say that’s like a driving force. The driving force is just getting people out. And I’m pretty psyched on what I’ve been working on.”
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Because Norris pitched in the ninth Wednesday, Gardenhire plans to use left-hander Tyler Alexander as the piggyback after right-hander Michael Fulmer starts Friday’s game. Nobody knows when Norris will pitch next — that’s part of the mystery without a set task.
He could make an appearance in a high-intensity situation. Or he will go in long relief to help a struggling starter. Maybe he gets a chance at a spot start if the Tigers need him for the unscheduled doubleheader with the St. Louis Cardinals.
“This piggyback thing is OK,” Gardenhire said. “We’ve used that, and we might use it again this season with him. It just depends on how these games go and how many innings we use out of the rest of the guys, as to the availability of those guys that we could piggyback with.
“If you have to put them in the game and try to win a game, we do that. Or keep the game where it’s at, and then you have to go another route.”
Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Detroit Tigers content.