All around the ballpark, reminders abound of Norris’ previous stint here. He was once an up-and-coming young starter who seemed on the verge of a solid career after helping pitch the Tigers to the cusp of a Wild Card spot in 2016, then injuries slowed his career and eventually led to a bullpen role.
“A lot of different faces,” Norris, now 29, acknowledged last weekend, “but it’s cool. It’s good.”
In that sense, the jog Norris made from the bullpen out to the mound for the sixth inning of Tuesday’s 3-1 loss to the Giants was familiar. The trudge back to the Tigers’ dugout at inning’s end, having yielded an Evan Longoria two-run homer that eventually loomed as the difference in the game, was a painful yet familiar reminder of his ongoing struggles to make it work in relief.
Norris returned to the Tigers on a Minor League contract July 27, having been released July 22 by the Cubs. He didn’t return for sentimentality’s sake, but for the chance to reset his career as a starter. The southpaw made two starts on Detroit’s last road trip and was in line for what would’ve been his first win as a starter in three years when the Guardians turned an Andrew Chafin strikeout/wild pitch into a six-run rally last Wednesday in Cleveland.
Instead of repeating changeups and sliders, Norris was a four-pitch hurler again. His curveball, a little-used pitch in relief, was viable. His fastball, despite velocity in the low-90s, was easier for him to locate and was drawing swings and misses. His slider, a pitch he re-tinkered with this year, was moving so much in Cleveland that he hit three right-handed batters in the foot with it.
“I obviously don’t want anybody on base, so it’s frustrating when that happens,” Norris said after that game, “but I just have to harness that movement.”
While the Tigers had two starts to offer Norris in an injury-depleted rotation, the combination of Detroit’s three off-days in an eight-day span with the return of Eduardo Rodriguez, the expected return of Michael Pineda and likely late-season looks at Joey Wentz and Garrett Hill leave additional starting opportunities for Norris looking iffy. If he’s going to continue his pitch work, it has to be in smaller sample sizes in relief, which hasn’t always been easy for him.
“Last year, I was just super caught in-between, whether it was workouts or whatever it was. I didn’t know what I was going to feel like every day,” Norris said. “This year, I felt good out of the bullpen with the Cubs. I had a couple bad games that made [the numbers] look bad, but I think I made improvements for sure out of the bullpen.”
Manager A.J. Hinch turned to Norris on Tuesday with the idea of two innings after starter Drew Hutchison tossed five innings of one-run ball. The alternating left- and right-handed hitters of the Giants’ lineup weren’t going to be easy for any matchup, but Norris and his changeup seemed ready to handle it. He threw a couple of sliders down to get right-handed pinch-hitter Austin Slater to fly out, then induced Wilmer Flores to chase an 0-2 changeup down and out of the zone for a groundout. He was a lefty-lefty matchup with Joc Pederson away from a 1-2-3 inning.
“Looking back, that’s a tough sequence of events,” Hinch said. “He’s seemingly in control of the inning after the two outs and then the walk.”
Up came right-handed-hitting Longoria, 4-for-10 for his career off Norris and with a 92-point bump in OPS off lefties this season compared to righties. Norris went back to the slider and buried the first one down and in, but Longoria didn’t chase. Catcher Eric Haase put his glove on the outside corner for the next one, but Norris yanked it down and in. Longoria pulled it deep to left, turning a 1-0 game to 3-0.
In some ways, it was a familiar theme from Norris’ struggles at times last year, the results not matching the stuff. Considering the state of the Tigers’ season and the appreciation for him in Detroit, there’s no better place for him to work on changing that.