Baltimore Orioles starting pitcher Bud Norris was excited when manager Buck Showalter selected him the home opening day starter. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
There's no doubt that Orioles right-hander Bud Norris pitches with a certain fire. He's not afraid to show emotion on the mound, and since the club acquired Norris in 2013, Orioles fans seldom have seen Norris hide his intensity.
That's what might make him a perfect fit to start the Orioles' home opener Friday against the Toronto Blue Jays at Camden Yards. He started on Opening Day two years ago for Houston, and won, so he realizes all the emotion involved. And last year, Norris pitched the Orioles into the American League Championship Series in his first career postseason start, dominating the Detroit Tigers in a clinching Game 3, so he knows how to perform under the spotlight.
"It's just the way I've always liked to compete," Norris, 30, said. "I think with me, it helps me, but I also think my teammates feed off it, knowing that I'm out there every day. I want them to know I'm going to be out there giving it all I've got. … I want to get guys out. I want to throw up zeros every half-inning. That's the ultimate focus, to keep it simple, but you only get that day for that day, and if I get 30 starts, then I want to get in each day and give it my all.
"I just think it's me. "It's a part of me. I'm competitor. I'm a fiery guy. I try to control my emotions. You never want to show up the other team or do something that will light a fire under their butt, but I go out there and pitch hard. I play hard. I pitch hard. It helps me go out there and compete."
There is no shortage of examples. There was the time last April in Boston, when both benches and dugouts cleared after Red Sox catcher David Ross, while trying to drop a bunt, took offense to Norris' high-and-inside deliveries.
In May, Norris plunked then-Detroit Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter in the side, then jawed with Hunter as their teams spilled out onto the field. Norris was quickly ejected, his first career ejection, because he had hit Hunter after allowing a homer, but still had plenty to say as he walked off the field and into the home dugout.
In July, Norris went viral. Facing Los Angeles Angels star Mike Trout with the bases loaded in a tie game at Angel Stadium of Anaheim, Norris painted the outside corner with a 95-mph fastball for an inning-ending called strike three on Trout, then sauntered off the mound, pursing his lips and grabbing between his legs.
Even in spring training, he argued balls and strikes with home plate umpire John Hirschbeck during a Grapefruit League exhibition game.
"It's one thing that could have ended up being a double-edged sword, but he's done a good job of keeping the sharp end away from himself," catcher Caleb Joseph said. "Bud is probably the most animated pitcher we have. … I don't think it would be right if he was a stone out there. That's what gives him that edge; it's his confidence, his ability to play at that type of level. That's what makes him great in my opinion. They are times when you try to throttle it back, but every time I've told him, 'Let's reset here,' he's responded. He has complete control over his emotions, and as a catcher, that's all you can ask for. I love the energy and I love the emotion, and when he's able to check it back, we're all in good shape."
The Orioles have tried to harness Norris occasionally, only to realize that his intensity fuels him on the mound. Rather than try to tamp down his passion, the club has come to appreciate it.
"You don't ever have to ask him how he's feeling or what he's feeling," manager Buck Showalter said. "If you have to do that, you're not watching. You learn how to appreciate a lot of the things he brings, the more you see him. You never have to worry about him not competing or not being athletic. He doesn't ever want to lose. He's not going to just go through the motions. That's why he's so good at golf and other things. If you get to know the whole thing, you knew there are reasons why. And you like that. That's what you want, right?"
Showalter said his rotation alignment would hinge on matchups, and Norris has had great success against Toronto. He heads into Friday's start with a 4-0 record and 2.36 ERA in six career starts against the Blue Jays. He made five of those starts last season, posting a 1.78 ERA.
Regardless of why he's starting Friday, Norris is looking forward to getting the ball in the home opener.
"It means a lot," Norris said. "Obviously, Buck has a lot of confidence in our rotation. Anybody can pitch that day. But after the season we had last year and what we did for the city and winning the East by the margin we did and really building the momentum going forward, I'm excited to be a part of it again. … [The fans are] going to be in full force. … I'm going to have a little more adrenaline, but I'll kind of just control my emotions and just go out there and play the game, but I'm sure I'll appreciate it more after the fact than before."
Last year, Norris seemed to be good against everybody, not just Toronto. After spending his first 4 1/2 seasons pitching for a losing team in Houston, Norris enjoyed the best year of his career: In his first full season in Baltimore, he went 15-8 with a 3.65 ERA in 28 starts.
His biggest contributions came against divisional foes, with a 9-1 mark and 2.85 ERA in 14 starts against AL East opponents. The Orioles won 13 of them.
"I really bought into the process and bought into the program," Norris said. "I bought into this team and the city. … I've made a lot of strides with pitches and just competing, but I also had a lot of teammates here who made me better, too, Gold Glovers all around the field and a bunch of good guys behind the plate. They've been outstanding, and that helped me as well."
One key factor to Norris' success last year was his improved walk rate — his 2.8 walks per nine innings were his lowest of his career. Mixing his fastball, slider and changeup, Norris became more comfortable putting the ball in play and allowing his defense to make plays behind him.
"Bud is really coming into his own in terms of knowing exactly what to do, throwing a certain pitch in an exact, certain spot," Joseph said. "It's not just, 'Here's a slider. Throw it.' He's really got an idea and a game plan. And when he executes his game plan, he usually gets really good results. Guys just don't hit him that well."
Norris struggled this spring, posting a 9.26 ERA in four Grapefruit League starts, but Norris also had his spot in the starting rotation locked up, so he said he was focused more on refining his pitches than on his results. Still, he's looking forward to turning the page to the regular season.
"This game is really about understanding that you can only control what you can control on that day," Norris said. "That's something I believed in a lot last year. Going out there and pitching, that's something you learn from this staff. I'm a fiery guy. I'm a competitive guy, and the nature of the beast of competing at the major league level is a big one. I didn't have the best of springs. I wasn't there necessarily for the statistics.
"But it's all about winning ballgames for me and pitching as deep into ballgames as I can to give us more opportunities to win more ballgames. Stats are one thing, but I just want to go out there and win ballgames, because that's what propels us to the postseason and chasing that ring."
Norris is one of 11 Orioles who will become free agents at the end of the season, so this could be the first and last home opener he starts for the Orioles. He realizes that opportunities to test the free-agent market don't come around often.
He said in January that he'd be open to staying in Baltimore. The club has yet to approach him about a possible extension.
"This is a great place to play," Norris said. "I've said that the whole time. I want to be somewhere where I'll be happy and can win. In the same token, knowing there are 11 guys who could leave this ballclub, that's almost half the club, which is kind of scary. But I love Baltimore, I love what they have building here, and if they ever came to my camp and starting discussing, I would be open to it.
"But the biggest thing I can control is pitching and leaving it all on the field and enjoying the moment as much as I can. This is where I want to be, and I want to be here right now with this team, so I think I'm in the best scenario to go out there and help my team and city to win. I'm looking forward to playing baseball. Whatever happens, I'll let my agent and the front office take care of it. I'm just going to go play, because that's what I'm supposed to do."