Opening Night start next step in Norris' growth

Righty plans to build on lessons learned in 2012 as Astros begin new era

Opening Night start next step in Norris' growth

HOUSTON -- Roy Oswalt, whose 143 career wins with Houston are the most by any Astros pitcher not named Larry Dierker, is the king of Houston Opening Days. He took the mound for eight consecutive season openers, which is a club record.

During his first spring camp with the Astros, in 2010, right-hander Bud Norris had a locker nestled next to the former Astros ace and couldn't help pick his brain about what it meant to start on Opening Day. How do you prepare? How do you control your emotions?

Oswalt was about as laid back as one can get, and for years, he preached to the media that Opening Day was just another game. Deep down, he appreciated the spotlight and the pageantry of the first game of the season, and Norris thirsted to experience it as well.

"This is something I've always wanted," Norris said.

When Norris throws the first pitch of the 2013 Major League season at 7:05 p.m. CT on Sunday at Minute Maid Park against the Rangers, it will mark the start of a new era for Astros baseball. The game will be Houston's first as a member of the American League, and all eyes will be on the 28-year-old Californian on the hill.

"It's something I've been working for my whole career, something everyone works for their whole career," Norris said. "It's a childhood dream to have an Opening Day [start]."

As much as it's an honor to pitch on Opening Day, Oswalt was right -- it's just one game, and the 30-plus starts the pitcher hopes to make later in the season will be just as important, if not more so. That's especially true for Norris, who's poised for a breakout season.

This year will mark Norris' fourth full season in the Major Leagues, and he's quickly gone from a fresh-faced rookie who soaked up as much knowledge as he could from vets like Oswalt to the staff ace and one of the senior members of the team. That was one of the reasons manager Bo Porter tabbed Norris to pitch on Sunday.

"You don't have an opportunity all the time to throw the first pitch of the season," Norris said. "When I [say] childhood dreams come, that's truly what it is. I remember listening on the radio Opening Day, and it's a big anticipation thing. Just to know that day is, 'I get to go out there and play baseball in the city of Houston,' it's truly exciting, and I'm honored."

Norris is 28-37 with a 4.42 ERA in his career and has the kind of stuff that has allowed him to dominate for stretches. Last year, he went 4-0 with a 1.17 ERA during a brilliant five-game span in May before injuries -- a sprained left knee and blisters on his throwing hand among them -- and inconsistency sent him on a frustrating 12-game losing streak in which he went 18 starts without a win.

"Bud is one of those guys that's shined in the Minor Leagues, and now it's time for him to shine in the big leagues," said pitching coach Doug Brocail, who started on Opening Day for the Tigers in 1997. "We've put our work in."

Porter loves the improvements Norris has made with this slider, and Brocail says there are still some mechanical adjustments Norris needs to make to take the next step. He wants him to stay closed during his windup a little bit more and descend on the mound a bit better. When Norris was at his best last year, he threw his fastball to both sides of the plate very well.

"When you're battling all the injuries and the blisters he's had, it takes away from his pitches," Brocail said. "We all know Bud's a fastball/slider guy, and he had to rely on his changeup a little bit more. You don't like your second secondary pitch to be your go-to pitch. I think he's going to be fine."

Norris will certainly be in his comfort zone at Minute Maid Park, where he pitched so well in 2012. He went 4-1 with a 1.71 ERA and 82 strikeouts at home last year, leading the National League and ranking second in the Majors in home ERA by a starter. His home ERA also ranked third all time in Astros history.

Away from the comforts of home? Norris was 3-12 with a 6.94 ERA in 18 starts.

"There are some things I'm definitely already considering that I'm going to put in the mix to get better at [on the road]," Norris said. "I'm not going to give those away, but I didn't really recognize those things until too late last year. The horse was already out of the barn.

"Obviously, some of those injuries were tied to that. Most of my injuries came on the road, and that's out of my control. The things I can control are the things I know I need to get better at on the road. I need to heighten my awareness on the road and just be comfortable in those parks, too."

But for now, Norris' focus is at home -- on Sunday night, when a national television audience will watch Norris throw the first AL pitch in team history. The Astros are hoping it's the start of something groundbreaking for Norris, too.

"He's been here for a long time; he's been through some rough times with the organization," Porter said. "He wants to be a part of the core group of players that gets this turned around. You can see it in his work habits. From his leadership skills, the things he's doing in the clubhouse, the conversations he's having with young players, you can see the maturation starting to take place and him taking the responsibility for what it means to be a leader."

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.