Top Blue Jays prospect Norris ‘never satisfied’

Daniel Norris (Buffalo Bisons)

BUFFALO, N.Y. – It was stuff that a starting pitcher doesn’t want to hear after a manager pulls him from the game.

“Man, that’s as bad as I’ve seen you,” catcher Mike Nickeas said to Daniel Norris.

If you were reading the body language and demeanour of the pitcher in the clubhouse after the game, you’d have assumed the Blue Jays’ top prospect in the minors had struggled mightily and taken his catcher’s assessment hard.

Upper lips stiffened. Heads dipped. Smiles were stowed for future reference.

If you listened to the pitcher and his manager, you might have thought it was a rocking for the 21-year-old left-hander who has been on a phenomenal run from Class A Dunedin to the triple-A Buffalo Bisons this summer.

Norris was talking about the struggle that he was going to have sleeping that night, pre-occupied by mistakes he had made. “I was not as sharp [as the first two triple-A starts],” Norris said. “I had some command issues. I was rushing my delivery a little bit. I was missing with my curveball. Not terrible misses, just missing.”

He talked about trying to keep his focus but, yeah, he had seen the Jays’ brass around before the game and their presence behind the plate might not have been completely out his thoughts.

Bisons manager Gary Allenson wasn’t confirming that Norris was heading to the bullpen — orders of that type come down from head office — but he gave the impression that it’s a done deal. Norris had already told the media earlier this week that the move to the ‘pen was in the plans.

And then you looked at the line from the 5-1 victory over the Scranton/Wilkes Barre RailRiders: five innings of work, one hit, one earned run, nine strikeouts, a W.

This was just his third start at triple-A. And, again worth noting, he’s 21.

All of it left you to wonder: What would it take to make Norris happy? And what’s a guy got to do to get some love from his catcher and manager?

It’s a measure of just how much things have changed for Norris over the last few months.

Just how much? When he stepped in front of the television camera and faced five reporters last night, he offered a pre-emptory apology: “I’m sorry. I’ve never done this before.”

Hold that thought. Let’s rewind.

A second-round draft pick of the Jays in 2011, Norris was 1-7 with a 4.20 ERA and 1.50 WHIP at Class A Lansing last summer.

Just a few months ago, Norris was assigned to Class A Dunedin and it looked like he’d be there for the duration of the season. But then he went on to post a 6-0 record in 13 starts, with an ERA of 1.22 and a 1.025 WHIP. These are the things that dreams and promotions are made of.

Norris then moved up to double-A in New Hampshire, where he went 3-1, with an ERA of 4.54 and 49 strikeouts in eight starts.

And then he was called up to the Herd a couple of weeks back. In his first two starts, both on the road, Norris gave up just five hits, allowed just one walk and struck out 23 in 11.2 innings. His 13 strikeouts against Lehigh Valley on the weekend was one away of the franchise’s modern-era record. That made him the first Bison to ever throw back-to-back 10-plus strikeout games. He was a weak groundout from the hat trick last night.

Even more remarkable: He racked up all these Ks in starts with a strict pitch count. Last night Norris was on an 85-pitch limit.

On numbers, you might concede last night’s game was a step back, though small enough to be insignificant. His ERA at triple-A is now blown up to 1.08. He did walk three batters. In the first two innings it seemed like his fastball was topping out at 91 m.p.h.

There were a few hard swallows and a few more uh-ohs when Norris gave up a homer to light-hitting shortstop Carmen Angelini in the second inning. Angelini jumped on the first pitch he saw and it drifted on over the left field fence.

But thereafter Norris righted things aesthetically and mechanically.

“In the fourth and fifth inning I made an adjustment and slowed my tempo down and started to get pitches over,” he said. “I wasn’t as amped up to get the ball to the plate.”

The next time through the line-up Norris bore down on Angelini and locked him up on a 94 m.p.h. fastball on the outside corner for the ninth and final K of the outing.

Norris was so soft-spoken and sheepish about the attention that it was better left to his manager and his catcher to explain how he over-powered the RailRiders with less than his most over-powering stuff.

“He didn’t have the curveball working for him tonight for the most part, but he’s got a pretty good fastball there,” Allenson said. “It’s a little tough to pick up. It’s deceptive. … He’s got the kind of stuff where you expect nobody to get a hit and to be locked in his stuff and it doesn’t happen every time.”

“He’s a special kid,” said Mike Nickeas, a 31-year-old Vancouver native. “His stuff is the best I’ve seen for a 21-year-old … ever. Stuff-wise, he’s as good as [Marcus] Stroman and [Aaron] Sanchez. To be able to take down a [triple-A] team that’s hitting .270 is impressive. But that’s just how good Daniel is right now. His stuff is terrific. His arm just comes through so quickly. The ball just comes shooting out. Every pitch looks the same. And his make-up is perfect. He’s here with a veteran team and he’s just stayed who he is as a person.”

Who Norris will be as a pitcher is to be determined. Who he is as a person was pretty clear after last night’s game.

“I’m never satisfied,” he said. “I can’t sleep that night [after a game]. You think about things you’ve done wrong. You try not to be too hard on yourself, but there’s always room for improvement. That’s why you keep looking forward to the next day.”

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