Matheny talks Carlos Martinez, Bud Norris after Cardinals' win
The Houston Astros selected Bud Norris in the sixth round of the 2006 amateur draft with the idea he could someday be their closer.
That trajectory changed, however, probably in 2009 when he led the Triple-A Pacific Coast League with a 2.63 ERA over 19 starts. The Cardinals saw just how good of a starter Norris could be, too, at least at first.
The Twitter-verse called him "Cy" Norris after a 26-inning stretch his rookie year in which he held the Cardinals to just one earned run. To that point, he had a 5.91 ERA against the rest of the National League.
Those 26 innings fed his reputation as a Cardinals killer until last Valentine's Day, when he signed a one-year, $3-million contract with St. Louis. The reputation is largely bogus anyway — in 19 career starts against the Cardinals, he's a very pedestrian 8-7.
But now that Norris is wearing the Birds on the Bat, manager Mike Matheny sees him the way the Astros did when they drafted him out of Cal Poly nine years ago.
Norris has emerged from a scrum of bullpen contenders with the closer's job.
Dominic Leone, Luke Gregerson, rookie fireballer Jordan Hicks and 2017 NL saves leader Greg Holland were all part of the same scrum, yet it's Chuck ... ahem .... Bud Norris who will be charged with nailing down the ninth inning?
Team executive John Mozeliak said so after the Cardinals' win over the Chicago White Sox on Tuesday. Matheny confirmed it after Norris made quick work of his sixth save in a 3-2 day-game win over the White Sox Wednesday.
Leone had allowed two runs to score and put the tying run on first with two out in the eighth before turning things over to Norris, who ended the threat with a strikeout of cleanup hitter Nickey Delmonico.
"He's one of those guys that's pretty rare right now in that he can go four or five outs and find a way to get it done," Matheny said.
Norris welcomes the formal coronation to the closer's role.
"It boosts my confidence. I've wanted to do it for a while," he said. "I'm very excited to know that I'm the guy now."
Somehow, Norris lasted 7,242 innings across 231 games before finally getting a chance to close last season for the Los Angeles Angels. He arrived at the All-Star break with 13 saves in 13 chances with a 2.23 ERA.
But he got just six more saves the rest of the year, thanks to chronic inflammation in his left knee that landed him on the Angels' disabled list.
"My knee started to bark and so did my hamstring, which shortened up my stride and it messes up your pitches," he said. "You don't have that freedom to just go out there and let it eat. That's where I am now — I feel so great."
Norris says there are two factors this season that make him more like the guy he was in the first half of last year, not the least of which is his health. Learning to condition himself as a reliever instead of a starter, he says, will help him preserve it.
"It's a different gig compared to being a starter as I have been for the majority of their career," Norris said. "Stretching, truly, is the biggest thing. It's not just your arm, but your legs, your hips, ankles at times, calves — the little things that can creep in that you don't want to happen.
"You've got to stay loose and be flexible."
Norris says he doesn't want to be too flexible in his bullpen role, however.
Whether he's charged with middle-inning relief, eighth-inning setup, or ninth-inning stops, Norris says he's most comfortable when his job is clearly defined.
"Mentally, it just gives you a better idea of when you're going to be in the game and why, what inning and so forth," he said. "In the ninth inning you have to know what the game is in front of you and why you're going in there. It definitely helps out in preparation mentally."
The remainder of the bullpen remains in flux. Without a spring training and a limited rehab assignment, Holland has struggled to a 7.36 ERA. Gregerson, Leone, John Brebbia, and Mike Mayers have been used in a variety of roles, including closer.
Hicks, Matt Bowman, Tyler Lyons and all those frequent flyers on the Memphis Shuttle are trying to settle into their places.
"We have a number of guys we're still trying to figure out so we can get that rhythm with how it works out of the pen," Matheny said. "We've got nice options, but we're still trying to find it."
But the first piece is in place in the person of Bud Norris, who for the moment is mowing down batters in the ninth inning the way he leveled the Cardinals for 26 innings at the start of his career.
Let's hope he can keep it up.