Norris encouraged as he works to find old form

Now in bullpen, lefty going back to basics in search of confidence

Norris encouraged as he works to find old form

DETROIT -- Daniel Norris was helping the Tigers remain in the playoff race at this point a year ago as one of the team's strongest starters down the stretch, one reason the Tigers' future looked bright. That's what makes a scene like Saturday's so unexpected.

He took the mound as a long reliever with the Tigers down four runs on their way to a 10-4 loss to the White Sox. He was filling innings, trying to keep the game within reach, but he was also out there to work on his own game. As a disappointing 2017 season winds down, for both the team and the pitcher, he's trying to find something positive.

The numbers weren't there Saturday, with two runs surrendered on four hits and two walks in three innings. But the delivery was, and so was his mentality, building off four solid innings in his previous two appearances.

"I feel fundamentally sound on the mound," Norris said earlier this week, "which I haven't felt in a while."

Part of the issue was health, with his season interrupted by a groin injury. Also, part of it was mental. He had outings earlier this year when he looked dominant, showing a mid-90s fastball, buckling breaking ball and the confidence to use them. He also had outings when he'd fall out of form and couldn't recover.

The latter outings outnumbered the former as the summer wore on. When he continued to battle big innings and high pitch counts during an August rehab assignment, the Tigers put him in the bullpen for September.

"Me and [pitching coach Rich] Dubee have been working very hard on my delivery," Norris said. "But I think the mentality of attacking hitters is a big difference."

He threw 40 pitches over three innings in Wednesday's loss at Cleveland, retiring his first seven batters before Roberto Perez hit an 0-2 pitch for a solo homer. His damage Saturday was pieced together, with the White Sox turning an infield single and a walk into a two-run seventh thanks to a double-steal and a hard-hit ground ball through a drawn-in infield.

"I thought Norris was crisper," Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. "The last couple outings, here and in Cleveland, his stuff was crisper than it was his previous outings."

Norris threw 58 pitches Saturday, 35 for strikes. His fastball topped out at 96 mph, and he drew three swings and misses with his slider.

"That, tonight, was exactly what he had last year when he was going so well," catcher James McCann said. "He attacked, attacked, attacked. That inning he gave up the runs could've easily gone a different way."

This is what the Tigers need to see. Even as they stock their farm system with starting pitching prospects, the foundation for a future rotation, the 24-year-old lefty remains a critical part of their plans. The stuff remains from the prized prospect they acquired in the David Price trade two years ago. Like with other young starters, the key is to translate it into results.

Another key, Norris said, is health. To that end, he plans to spend part of his offseason at the Peak Performance Project in Santa Barbara, Calif., trying to figure out how to avoid the groin and oblique injuries that have hampered him the past few years.

"I'm putting the work in, but sometimes, especially when you're hurt, maybe something has to change," Norris said. "There's a difference between working hard and working the right way."

It also fits into his offseason travels.

"I'll probably be camping out by the water, surf every morning, then work out. I'm pretty excited about that," he said. "I think it'll work out nice, kind of get a hard reset, be by the ocean and be able to work out every day with some of the best people in the country."

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for 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.