The improving Detroit Tigers bullpen, has a combined 1.94 ERA — ranking third-best in baseball and first in the American League — since May 16.
Around the same time, a left-hander previously described by manager AJ Hinch as a weapon started to perform better: Daniel Norris.
“For me, it was just trying to find a rhythm,” Norris said Sunday. “I felt out of sync for a little while, and when you feel that, you work on just getting back to what feels good. It’s a process. It’s a long season, but that’s how it works, especially out of the bullpen.”
The Tigers (22-31) have won 13 of their past 20 games, thanks to a dominant starting rotation, a sturdy bullpen and stronger plate appearances. They beat the New York Yankees on a night when Gerrit Cole was pitching, and then they swept the Bronx Bombers in Detroit for the first time since 2000.
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Norris worked a scoreless seventh inning in Saturday’s 6-1 victory against the Yankees, the Tigers’ second of three wins. He plunked Mike Ford to start his inning but sat down the next three batters: Miguel Andujar popped out in foul territory on the first pitch he saw; Clint Frazier struck out swinging at a 3-2 changeup; Brett Gardner struck out swinging at a 3-2 slider.
Another highlight: Norris’ fastball reached 94.1 mph. (He was hitting 94 mph in spring training, but earlier in the season, he couldn’t get past 91-92 mph. “I have no idea,” Norris said. “I’ve been dumbfounded for six, seven weeks about it.”)
The inning-long performance against New York was the best Norris has felt this season. Through his first 12 outings, he had a 7.30 ERA, six walks and 11 strikeouts in 12⅓ innings.
“Sometimes with whatever you’re working on, you wake up and it clicks that day,” Norris said. “That’s just what I felt. I didn’t have more effort in my attack on the hitters. It was just the stuff I’ve been focusing on just sort of came together with my delivery. I still sprayed some balls, but I felt free on the mound instead of placing the ball.
“I just felt like I was attacking better, at least in my conviction.”
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Since May 12, Norris has pitched 5⅔ scoreless innings, allowing two hits and one walk. He has seven strikeouts in these six games out of the bullpen, while throwing 62% of his 76 pitches for strikes during this span.
“There’s not a hitter in the big leagues he can’t match up well against,” Hinch said. “I don’t have to have a soft landing for him. He’s not weak mentally. He doesn’t expect a layup. There are no layups in the big leagues.”
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Transitioning from the starting rotation — where his baseball career began — to the bullpen was a new challenge for Norris during the 2020 season. In his 13 relief appearances last year, he registered a 2.77 ERA, five walks and 28 strikeouts in 26 innings.
Hinch praised his name dating back to spring training.
The skipper still believes in Norris’ ability to carve up his opponents, even with his 5.00 ERA, seven walks and two home runs allowed across 18 innings in 2021 — the combined results of one bad stretch and one excellent stretch in the making.
“I think he can be a valuable part to a good bullpen,” Hinch said. “I certainly trust him more than the numbers indicate. I don’t see him as a guy I worry about. When I put him into the game, I expect good things from him.”
Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.