ATLANTA -- Daniel Norris grew up in Johnson City, Tenn., but he spent an important part of his childhood at Turner Field.
"In high school, I'd play summer ball here," Norris said. "We'd have games at 11 or 1, and we would pack up and carpool to the game. We'd get in for like a buck in the upper deck and sneak down and watch games. It was pretty cool."
With 6 2/3 innings of one-run ball and eight strikeouts Friday night against the Braves, the Tigers' lefty is quickly growing up as a pitcher, too.
In the process, the 23-year-old -- who went into Spring Training competing for a spot at the back end of the rotation -- is now firmly in line for a role in Detroit's potential postseason rotation. Depending on whether the Tigers have to make up their rainout against Cleveland on Monday afternoon at Comerica Park, then play any tiebreaker games, Norris could be in line to start the American League Wild Card Game or AL Division Series opener.
The way the second-year starter has pitched lately gives the Tigers every reason to put the fate of their season on his arm.
"He's grown quite a bit," manager Brad Ausmus said. "He's starting to learn how to control his emotions and concentrate on his pitching. He's gotten deep into games now, and it's nice to see."
A year after Norris threw a 54-pitch first inning in his next-to-last start of 2015, he's doing a good job of avoiding the long innings that sapped his pitch count. Norris' 114 pitches Friday not only marked his career high, it tied Anibal Sanchez for the most this season by a Tigers pitcher not named Justin Verlander. With that count, he fell a Brandon Snyder home run shy of seven scoreless innings for the first time in his career. His 6 2/3 innings set a personal season high after struggling to complete the sixth in six of his first nine starts upon rejoining the rotation in early August.
He went 2-0 with a 2.73 ERA in five September starts, including a .223 batting average and .637 OPS allowed and 38 strikeouts over 29 2/3 innings. He allowed two runs or fewer in each of his past four starts. One big difference has been a harder, sharper slider that has set up his fastball nicely. What was an average 84-mph pitch last year has jumped to 87.5 mph on average this season. Though the overall swing and miss rate is down for it, hitters are chasing it out of the strike zone more often. He also has a larger velocity gap between his fastball and his changeup.
"The first thing that comes to my head is how much me and [pitching coach Rich] Dubee have worked," Norris said. "He's helped me with some mechanical adjustments that make my stuff better without having to try so hard, and obviously I revert back some times, but [also] just mentally is helping me revert back to that quicker. That's him. He just helps me with that kind of stuff. He's been great. He's been really good."
According to MLB Gameday data and brooksbaseball.net, Norris' fastball averaged 95.5 mph, highest in his career. He threw 60 of 79 for strikes, 13 of them for swings and misses compared with 14 put in play. Time and again, the fastball sent hitters up and out of their strike zone. With 19 sliders, he drew four swings and misses.
Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.