St. Louis Cardinals

Once a thorn in their side, Bud Norris is a candidate to be Cardinals' closer

St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Bud Norris laughs with Miles Mikolas in the dugout of Roger Dean Stadium during spring training in Jupiter, Florida, on Thursday.
St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Bud Norris laughs with Miles Mikolas in the dugout of Roger Dean Stadium during spring training in Jupiter, Florida, on Thursday. snagy@bnd.com

For four games that straddled the first two years of his career, Bud Norris held a mysterious mastery over the St. Louis Cardinals.

Otherwise unremarkable, his 2009 and 2010 seasons will be remembered by the 28 innings in which he held the Cardinals to just one earned run. Accordingly, fans and media in St. Louis renamed the Houston Astros rookie after martial arts tough guy "Chuck" Norris.

But Norris, who turned 33 on March 2, is now looking forward to pitching with more regularity at Busch Stadium as a member of the home team.

"I was really excited about the opportunity because I know how well I've pitched in Busch Stadium against the Cardinals," said Norris, who signed a one-year, $3 million deal with the team last month. "There's no doubt they brought the best out in me, and I've had some of my best games against them.

"That said, I'm really happy to pull this jersey on and be part of the home team when I'm pitching in Busch Stadium."

On a pitching staff still under construction and with plenty of young and interchangeable parts, the exact role Norris will play remains to be seen. Manager Mike Matheny says the right-hander is versatile enough to patch any hole that might otherwise exist once the Cardinals break camp.

On April 22, 2017, as a member of the Los Angeles Angels, Norris worked the ninth inning in a win over the Toronto Blue Jays to earn the first save of his career. He picked up 12 more with a 2.23 ERA before the All-Star break.

Though he was derailed by an inflamed knee that held him to just six more saves the remainder of the year, Norris' three months as an effective closer flagged the attention of the Cardinals, who view him as a candidate to fill that need once again in 2018.

"I don't know if he's here otherwise," Matheny said from the Cardinals' spring training complex in Jupiter, Florida. "That's absolutely part of the conversation. "But, also, you can't deny the fact — he knows and we know — that he can start. That kind of versatility plays well for him."

If Norris is needed to start, Matheny has other options for covering a ninth-inning lead.

John Mozeliak, the team's president of baseball operations, tentatively tagged free agent Luke Gregerson with the role during the Cardinals' annual Winter Warm-Up in January. Others like John Brebbia, Tyler Lyons and Sam Tuivailala will receive some consideration as well, as will Dominic Leone, who was acquired from the Blue Jays in a trade for Randal Grichuk.

The Cardinals also brought back their 35-year-old former closer, Jason Motte, on a minor league deal.

"We'll get a clearer picture eventually, but it's not time yet," Matheny said. "(Norris) brings a lot of flexibility, and a lot of it will have to do with what our starters look like, what our younger starters look like and how the bullpen starts to shape up.

"Every time a guy takes the mound ... it helps us get a little more clear on what some of their roles will be."

A tight hamstring has so far kept Norris on limited duty in Jupiter. He's throwing off the mound without issue, Matheny said, but needs more time before he can field his position without aggravating the injury.

Norris was drafted by Houston in the sixth round of the 2006 draft out of California Polytechnic State University. A closer's role might have been in the cards from the beginning, he said, had he not insisted on proving himself as a starter.

Now that he's had a taste of ninth-inning pressure, he's open to whatever role the Cardinals ask him to fill.

"I got my first real taste of (closing) last year and definitely embraced it and enjoyed it," said Norris, who has started 188 major league games. "It's a different beast, and I learned a lot from the mental and physical side of closing as far as getting myself ready ... If that's what they call on me to do, I'll be ready to do it."

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