Wednesday night marked Blue Jays pitching prospect Daniel Norris's double-A debut at Northeast Delta Dental Stadium for the New Hampshire Fisher Cats. In 5.2 innings, he gave up four earned runs on four hits, with nine strikeouts against just one walk and another hit by pitch. Unfortunately, he also gave up his first two home runs of the year, though that was just the beginning of the fireworks that would ensue.
In the first inning, Norris mostly used fastballs, sitting 92-93 mph and touching 94 (all velocity readings from broadcast) to strike out the the Altoona Curve's (Pittsburgh Pirates affiliate) Drew Maggi swinging as part of the 1-2-3 inning. This was the range he pitched in all night. After two fastballs to the third hitter, he got a swinging strike on his curveball and then induced a ground out on an offspeed pitch.
Leading off the second, Elias Diaz hit a 1-0 pitch in the air the opposite way to right field. It didn't seem particularly well struck, but kept carrying and landed over the fence for a home run. After two fly outs to left and centre field, Norris struck out the last hitter on a 3-2 fastball at 92 that was swung through. The third inning started similarly, with back-to-back whiffs for a swinging strikeout followed by another sharp lineout and a broken bat fisted popout to first, resulting in a second 1-2-3 inning.
The fourth inning started very promisingly, with a first pitch popout and swinging strikeout by Keon Broxton on a fastball at 94 (after he swung through a changeup earlier in the count). Diaz came back up and drew a four-pitch walk, bringing Stetson Allie up to plate.
Allie has his own interesting story, signing for $2.25M million after being drafted in the second round of the 2010 draft as a pitcher who could approach 100. Unfortunately, he couldn't harness his control at all, walking 37 and hitting 10 more in 27.2 professional innings in 2011 and 2012. In high school, he was a legitimate two-way talent, so he switching from pitcher to hitter in mid-2012. In 2013, he destroyed low-A, hitting 17 home runs before a midseason promotion, with an OPS above 1.000. He didn't have the same success in high-A (.697 OPS) but was promoted to double-A nonetheless.
Like Diaz in the second inning, Allie hit a 1-0 pitch the opposite way to right field, and it kept carrying, carrying, and carrying all the way out to right field for a home run. Once again, it didn't seem to be particularly good contact, with the announcer calling it a "Delta Dental Stadium Special". Norris escaped further damage with his only looking strikeout of the night.
The fifth opened with a ringing double off the centrefield wall, on what looked like a 1-0 fastball over the plate. Norris appeared to jam the next hitter on a 1-1 pitch and induce a shallow popout to right, but once again the ball carried well and while it was caught it was deep enough allow the runner to advance to third base with one out. Norris beared down and got back-to-back strikeouts, overpowering Gift Ngoepe and Alen Hanson, but a wild pitch to the latter scored the fourth run against Norris. To this point, all four runners to reach base against Norris had scored.
A solid line drive to centre led off the Curve's half of the sixth inning. After back-to-back swinging strikeouts--Norris's eighth and ninth of the night--Stetson Allie, who hit a homer in his last at bat, came back up to the plate against Norris. The first pitch to him came in a little tight for a ball. After a lengthy delay due to a brief mound visit from catcher Derrick Chung followed by a visit from the pitching coach (quite curious, as reliever Arik Sikula had apparently finished his warmup tosses already), the next pitch came in very high and very tight, nearly hitting Allie. The 2-0 pitch was also high and inside, though not close to hitting him. Finally, on 3-0, Norris came in high and tight again, hitting Allie high on his back. It was his last pitch of the night, and a peculiar way to end the outing, with effects that would soon echo loudly. Sikula came in and ended the inning with a strikeout on three pitches after a walk.
Overall, it was a very good debut for Norris, as he generally overpowered the Altoona lineup. In total, he generated 17 swings-and-misses on 88 pitches, and was able to induce them on his fastball, his change-up, and his breaking balls. The great irony is that though he was squared up a number of times (the double off the wall, single, and two sharp lineouts), the balls that did the most damage to his stat line were not particularly well struck.
After a Jorge Flores single and Kenny Wilson double to lead off the bottom of the sixth, Jon Berti came to the plate for the Fisher Cats and hit a ground ball to third base, and was retired on a 5-3 putout. Flores scored, but Kenny Wilson tried to imitate Jose Reyes and broke for third as the ball was thrown to first. He was ruled out in a bang-bang play on the return throw, in one of the more unconventional (5-3-6) double plays one will see.
That brought Andy Burns to the plate, arguably New Hampshire top position player prospect. The first pitch came way inside, hitting him in the foot. The plate umpire Doug Bel Bello immediately pointed towards the mound issuing a warning, then to the Altoona dugout and clearly pointed to issue a warning, and then went to turn towards the Fisher Cat dugout to issue a warning, but his attention was diverted to the mound. Shortly after, he seemed to look again towards the Fisher Cat dugout and spoke in their direction. Burns was caught stealing to end the inning.
In the top of the seventh, Sikula came back out. His first pitch to the leadoff hitter Jarek Cunningham came a little inside, but his second pitch came very high and tight (apparently hitting him, though it looked like he dodged it). While Del Bello was in the process of tossing Sikula and Fisher Cat manager Bobby Meachem for what he considered to be an intentional throw to hit the batter, all hell broke loose. Cunningham whipped his helmet to the ground and charged the mound, the dugouts and bullpens emptied and about three mini-melees occurred in the infield.
In total, there were nine ejections. Four more Fisher Cats were ejected after Sikula and Meachem. Per one of the Fisher Cat broadcasters who talked to him in the clubhouse, Meachem was apparently unaware that their bench had been warned (and on a related sidenote, Meachem's wife was about just about to join the broadcast to promote a charitable cause as the choas ensued). The right end of the defensive spectrum took a big hit for the Fisher Cats, with first baseman K.C. Hobson and DH Mike McDade tossed, forcing shortstop Kevin Nolan to move to first. Yusuf Carter wasn't even on the active roster, and got tossed as well, with reliever Dustin Antolin as the final ejectee. For Altoona, the ejections were Cunningham, Gift Noepke (who was on deck), and Keon Broxton.
In the end, the Fisher Cats won the game, scoring three runs in the bottom of the eighth. A fielder's choice plated the tying run, a single the go ahead run, and then back-to-back-back walks forced in an insurance run that ultimately proved decisive in a 6-5 win.