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Bisons lefty Norris is finding the zone

It’s right there on his Twitter page. Daniel Norris, baseball’s young iconoclast, lives to find three things in life: 1. Eternal life; 2. The strike zone; and 3. Good waves.

He’s found plenty of good waves. Norris, who taught himself to surf, has ridden the waves in Lake Michigan, North Carolina’s Outer Banks, off the coast of Florida, and for nine wonderful, solitary days in Nicaragua.

Eternal life, well, it’s not for us mortals to say what lies in the great beyond. The strike zone is a much more tangible realm – though as Norris discovered, it can also be a difficult thing to locate.

That’s why Norris, a 22-year-old left-hander, was on the mound for the Bisons on Sunday afternoon at Coca-Cola Field. After a sterling spring, he nailed down a spot in the Toronto rotation. He said it was the best he had felt throwing a baseball, “maybe ever.”

But once the regular season began and the pressure intensified, Norris struggled to find the strike zone on a consistent basis. He wasn’t going deep into games and he was getting down on himself. So the Jays sent him down to the Bisons.

Norris wasn’t crazy about the demotion. After all, despite his somewhat wayward hurling, he had the lowest earned run average among the Jays starters when he was sent down. That’s faint praise, however, and they wanted their top prospect to get things right.

Evidently, he’s finding the strike zone again. On Sunday, Norris pitched six strong, if at times unsteady, innings as the Bisons ended their homestand with a 5-2 loss to the Toledo Mud Hens in 12 innings.

Norris gave up five hits and two runs, while walking three and striking out nine. He had command issues at times, but for much of his outing he showed why he’s been rated the top prospect in the Blue Jays organization and the 18th overall prospect in the major leagues.

“It’s pretty much where I want it to be,” said Norris, who has a 2.50 ERA in three starts with the Bisons. “I feel really good about today.”

The 6-2 Norris was asked if he was close to where he was in the spring, when he said it was the best he ever threw a baseball.

“Today was really, really close,” he said. “My side sessions leading up to this day were back to spring form. Today, if not there, it was really, really close.”

He used his 93 mph fastball, sharp curveball and nasty slider and changeup to great effect – though his manager, Gary Allenson, said that Norris got into trouble in the third – when he allowed a run and left the bases loaded – when he went away from his fastball.

“He basically relied on all of his off-speed pitches to get out of the inning,” Allenson said, “instead of using his fastball to set up the off-speed pitches. He’s got a good fastball. Why get away from that?”

Norris agreed he became too reliant on his off-speed stuff in the third. But when you have his arsenal, it’s hard not to use it in a big situation. With the bases loaded in the third, he blew away Tyler Collins with a 3-2 slider that Collins couldn’t have hit with an oar.

“I was kind of worrying about the runner a little too much,” said Norris. “I made pitches when I had to. From that point on, I just kind of went back to pitching. We got back to the fastball.”

For most of Sunday’s start, Norris looked like he belongs in a big-league rotation. Allenson said the Bisons are using a six-man rotation at the moment, which suggests the kid won’t be here long.

“When they feel he’s ready to come back and contribute, I’m sure he’ll be there,” Allenson said. “He’s got good stuff.”

It’s hard to imagine Norris staying in Buffalo much longer if he continues to have success in the minors. At the moment, no team in the big leagues is more desperate for pitching help than Toronto.

Entering Sunday, the Blue Jays were 31st in the majors in ERA at 4.78, ahead of only Colorado. They were last in strikeout-to-walk ratio. They had lost four in a row and given up at least six runs in each game. In their last nine losses, they had allowed 62 runs.

These are desperate times for the Jays, who are in “win-now” mode as they wait for the R.A. Dickey and Jose Reyes deals to result in the franchise’s first playoff berth since 1993. The future of General Manager Alex Anthopoulos and manager John Gibbons could depend on it.

Norris complained of a dead arm in April. He said it was simply something he had to work through. The Jays said he was being too hard on himself. The joke in Toronto was that catcher Russell Martin had to remind Norris to breathe.

When Norris was sent down, Gibbons said it was for his own good. After the demotion, Norris tweeted: “Challenge accepted.”

He is an affirmed non-conformist. His motto is “Adventure is freedom.” Last winter, Norris lived in a 1978 Volkswager camper – named Shaggy after the cartoon character in Scooby Doo – behind the dumpsters in a Wal-Mart parking lot.

Norris is a big fan of Jack Kerouac’s classic novel of young wanderlust, “On the Road.” He’s a hippie who says he has never done drugs or drunk alcohol. He has hiked through mountains and jungles. He’s a photographer and poet and rock climber.

Above all, he’s a competitor. Norris burns to become the elite big-league starter that the Jays so desperately need. Big-league teams are extra cautious with their young arms nowadays. But if it truly is a win-now time in Toronto, now might be the time to recall him.

“I haven’t heard anything,” Norris said. “I don’t know. At this point, I just have to go out there and try to get better every day. There’s no point worrying about what decision they’re going to make. I can just keep giving them a reason, I guess.”

No need to make waves, after all. If he keeps relying on his best stuff and finds the strike zone, he’ll be on the road back to Toronto in no time.


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