Part of Derek Norris’ success with the bat this season, A’s manager Bob Melvin said, can be traced to Norris’ developing a consistent pre-game hitting routine. But before the A’s played the Washington Nationals on Sunday morning, Norris said, that routine "went so terrible, I had to leave the cage."
"But sometimes those days end up being career days," Norris said, "because you’re not trying to do too much, and you’re just trying to barrel the ball and put it in play."
And indeed, Sunday was a career day for Norris. In the first inning, he came up against left-hander Gio Gonzalez with two on and two outs and hit a 3-0 fastball into the seats for a three-run homer. The very next inning, again with two on and two outs, Norris again got a 3-0 fastball from Gonzalez -- and did the exact same thing.
Two swings, two homers, six RBIs -- equaling the most RBIs in a game by a catcher in A’s franchise history since 1914. The last to do it was Joe Asroth on Sept. 23, 1950. The multi-homer game was the first of Norris’ career.
"They had the same feel to them," Melvin said. "Same swing."
The similarities were remarkable, right down to the fact that both could’ve been avoided. The first followed an infield single by Yoenis Cespedes, who beat out a slow but playable chopper to shortstop Ian Desmond. The next came after a walk to Cespedes, who earlier in the at-bat had hit a pop-up that Nationals catcher Jose Lobaton let drop on the infield, where it bounced foul. After the second, Gonzalez was visibly upset in the dugout.
"It was just one of them special days," Norris said.
Made all the more special by the fact it came against the Nationals, the team that traded Norris to the A’s in December 2011. The Nationals’ main acquisition in that trade? Gio Gonzalez.
"This is one of the better feelings I’ve had," Norris said. "It’s not that they didn’t want you, but you still stick it to them, the team that traded you. It’s always nice to stick it to them like, yeah, you traded me, whatever. But it’s definitely a great feeling."
Adding to the absurdness of Norris’ feat was that both homers came on nearly identical swings on 3-0 fastballs. The first was slightly outside, the second more middle-in, but both very much over the plate. Melvin said the A’s don’t often give hitters the green light in 3-0 counts, but that this was one area where Gonzalez’s familiarity with the A’s -- he pitched in Oakland from 2008-11 -- might have burned him.
"The first time, Gio’s been around here and knows that we don’t do that a whole lot," Melvin said. "There’s a little give and take, too, as to whether a guy has good command early, and it didn’t look like Gio did. But Derek’s been seeing the ball really well, so I trusted him to take it if it was a ball."
As for the second time? "This time I would think Gio would probably know there’s a chance he could swing 3-0," Melvin said. "But again, you’ve got to get a good pitch to hit and put a good swing on it. It looked like two exact same swings."
Norris said of the second 3-0 fastball that, "The last thing on my mind was that he was going to go there. I figured he’d stay down and away or something, but he threw it kind of middle-away the first at-bat and maybe he thought he’d sneak one in there."
Norris didn’t miss it, as he hasn’t missed many hittable pitches at all recently. With his 2-for-4 day Sunday, Norris is batting .385 for the season and .488 (21-for-43) in his last 16 games.
"He’s not just swinging to swing," Melvin said. "He’s recognizing where the ball is and putting a good swing on it, not trying to do too much. Just get the barrel on it, and his power will take care of itself."
About that trade, which also brought Tommy Milone to Oakland: It can’t be said that it hasn’t worked out well for the Nationals. Gonzalez won 21 games in 2012 and finished third in Cy Young voting, and he had a 3.36 ERA last year. For the A’s, though, it looks as though the move is starting to bear fruit now. Norris is early in a potential breakout year with bat, and the only reason he isn’t playing every day is that Melvin places such value in the platoon with John Jaso, who himself is hitting .428 his last nine games.
"I feel like (the Nationals) liked me, but they had needs," Norris said of the trade. "I think (the A’s) were looking for someone a little younger to come in and be part of the platoon, and I think I was just a good piece for their puzzle."
Right now, it’s looking like an excellent fit.
• Tomorrow’s print story will have more on Norris and the catching platoon, both halves of which are producing with impressive consistency right now for not playing every day. Quickly, here’s Melvin’s answer when he was asked after the game how both Norris and Jaso have seemed unaffected lately by their irregular starts:
"Well, you play a lot of games, and a lot of times if you don’t start a game, it doesn’t mean you’re not in there. So they get plenty of consistent reps. As catchers, too, you’re a little more rested when you don’t have to play every day and you’re getting the consistent dings and some of the wear and tear everyday catchers have to deal with.
"But they’re both good hitters. You try to get them in there as much as you can to keep them fresh, which we try to. And they both have the ability to do what you see them doing right now."
• Norris’ day overshadowed a very good outing by Scott Kazmir, who allowed four hits in seven scoreless innings. Kazmir’s velocity was again slightly down -- he topped out at 90-91 mph with his fastball -- but he retired the side in order in five of his seven innings and at one point set down 15 in a row before Jayson Werth’s single in the seventh.
"He finds different ways to do things it seems like," Melvin said. "Some days he’ll be throwing 94, other days he’ll be throwing 89, 90. But his mix of pitches now is really making him who he is.
"He has four pitches that you have to deal with, and when he’s throwing them for strikes it’s tough to think along with him."
Apparently one way to get the best out of Kazmir: Have him pitch during the day. Going into Sunday’s start, he was 28-17 with a 3.78 ERA in day games in his career, compared to 52-54 with a 4.24 ERA in night games. In five starts during the day this season, he has gone 3-0 with a 1.31 ERA (five earned runs allowed in 34 1/3 innings).
• Also overshadowed by Norris: Brandon Moss started against a left-hander and went 3-for-4, including a seventh-inning double off tough left-handed reliever Jerry Blevins. Prior to Sunday, Moss had four hits all season against lefties.
"Especially the last at-bat off Blevins, that’s the best I’ve seen him track a left-hander in a while," Melvin said. "He’ll hit some mistakes off lefties for homers, usually to right (field). But when he’s staying on the ball and hitting it the other way with a little bit of fade spin on it, it means he’s really taking a good swing at a ball away, which was kind of his Achilles heel against lefties before."
Moss, incidentally, was the last A’s player to have a six-RBI game before Norris Sunday, according to baseball-reference.com. Moss accomplished the feat in a 14-4 A’s win over the Detroit Tigers last Aug. 28.
• It wasn’t a great homecoming for either former A’s pitcher making his first appearance at the Coliseum since being traded. Blevins, who spent parts of the last seasons with the A’s, pitched the seventh and gave up two runs as his first three hitters all reached -- Alberto Callaspo walked, Moss doubled and both scored on Nick Punto’s single.
• Joe Savery made his A’s debut in relief of Kazmir and pitched a scoreless eighth with one hit allowed -- a one-out Jose Lobaton single. Savery, claimed off waivers by the A’s from Philadelphia in February, was called up Friday from Triple-A Sacramento, where he was 4-0 with a 3.86 ERA in 10 relief appearances.
As one indication that pretty much everything went right for the A’s in this series, Melvin was able to get both relievers called up from Triple-A on Friday some extremely soft landings. Fernando Rodriguez made his return from Tommy John surgery in an 8-0 win on Friday night, and Savery entered with a 9-0 lead on Sunday.
Here’s another: The Nationals made more errors in the series (five) than they scored runs (four). The A’s, meanwhile, swept a series for the fourth time this season, which leads the majors.
• The A’s announced they raised $70,635 on annual Breast Cancer Awareness Day, by way of ticket and memorabilia sales, an autographed quilt raffle and support from fans and sponsors. The team said this year’s total was a 15 percent increase from last year. Proceeds go to the American Cancer Society for education and research.
Several players wore pink armbands or wristbands and used pink bats in the game, with the annual fundraiser also coming on Mother’s Day. The A’s said that since their first Breast Cancer Awareness Day in 1999, they’ve raised nearly $1.4 million in proceeds.
One player who didn’t use a pink bat: Norris. The reason? "I never got any," Norris said. He did have pink on his shoes and a pink wristband. But a pink uniform probably would have said less for his mom, Jacque, than the day he had with the bat.
"She gave me some type of power from somewhere," Norris said. "Being Mother’s Day, she’s always been there for me, and I think it just proves it today. She’s the best mother in the world. She’s a saint of a woman."
Speaking of the bat, Norris must have kept the one he used to hit the two homers, right? Actually, he said, he used it in his final at-bat -- and shattered it lining out softly to the shortstop.
"It don’t matter," Norris said. "Give me any piece of wood, I’ll go up there and swing it."
• For the A’s, it’s now on to the Chicago White Sox, who come to the Coliseum for a three-game series beginning Monday. The pitching probables: