With the Detroit Tigers officially eliminated from the 2015 postseason, the remaining handful of games come down to professional pride and turning an eye toward next year.
Veteran Victor Martinez, who gritted through injury practically this entire season, was left out of the lineup Tuesday after soreness in his left quad forced him from Monday's game against the Texas Rangers. Last Wednesday, Miguel Cabrera, hampered by a back issue, was given a day off. Had the Tigers been trying to chase down a playoff berth, he would've played, manager Brad Ausmus explained. With the club currently toiling at the bottom of the standings, it made little sense.
The prevailing theme here? Play it safe. Why risk it?
Which is exactly why some were surprised -- others aghast -- that Daniel Norris returned to the mound in the second inning of Tuesday's 7-6 loss to the Rangers following an arduous 54-pitch inning. According to ESPN Stats & Info, no other pitcher in the majors has thrown that many pitches in a single inning this season. In fact, no pitcher has thrown 54 pitches in one frame since Paul Maholm for the Pittsburgh Pirates, in the third inning on May 9, 2010.
The last pitcher to throw 54 or more in the first? Wandy Rodriguez, who threw 55 for the Houston Astros in the first inning on Aug. 1, 2007. Interestingly, only two other pitchers have thrown 50-plus pitches in the first inning this season and they were both Tigers: veteran Randy Wolf and David Price.
Norris, the headlining piece of a multiplayer return in the trade-deadline deal that sent Price to the Toronto Blue Jays, remains one of the club's prized pitching prospects. The 22-year-old lefty is a front-runner to compete for a spot in the starting rotation next season. Was leaving him in the game after a taxing first inning really the right move?
Clearly, some in social media did not believe so, with the responses ranging from puzzled to downright outraged and just about everywhere in between.
After the loss, which relegated the Tigers back to last place in the American League Central Division, Ausmus defended the decision. Norris went on to pitch another 2/3 of an inning -- 17 pitches worth -- to end his night with 71 in total before he was replaced by Buck Farmer.
Asked by reporters why he left Norris in -- in the first inning, let alone return in the second -- Ausmus said:
"So his next start, he can throw more pitches."
Norris has indeed been on a fairly strict pitch count since returning from the disabled list for an oblique strain suffered Aug. 19. The Tigers have been mindful of those constraints, so much so that Norris was removed from his last start despite pitching five perfect innings Sept. 22, against the Chicago White Sox.
Ausmus did not seem worried in this situation, however.
"I think the first inning probably taxed him a little bit," Ausmus said. "But like I said, we also wanted to get his pitch count up enough so that in his next start he could stick around. So it was a very blurred line."
Granted, Norris' oblique injury is not regarded as a threatening one; Harvey is in his first season back from Tommy John surgery. Assuming Norris has not compensated in his pitching mechanics since returning from injury, his previous oblique strain can be considered a non-factor. But it doesn't mean that the pitch count should be for naught.
And just like innings limits, not all pitch counts are the same.
No one would have batted an eye had Norris thrown 54 pitches over three innings, or over the span of two innings for that matter. That he did so in one trip to the mound raises obvious concerns.
According to Glenn Fleisig, research director for the American Sports Medicine Institute, logic dictates that a pitcher is fatigued more from a labor-intensive single inning than the same pitch count spread over multiple innings. Additionally, there is the belief that a pitcher's level of exertion, and consequently elbow and shoulder stress, is increased in a higher-leverage situation such as with runners in scoring position.
But again, this is difficult to prove, especially because it's virtually impossible to pinpoint with any specificity what causes the injury.
"Pitching injuries don't happen on one pitch," Fleisig told ESPN.com in a telephone conversation Wednesday afternoon. "With virtually every pitching injury, the final pitch is just the last straw."
So in determining whether a pitcher should continue to throw, a number of variables should be taken into consideration. Though it is advisable for a team to have mapped out a certain set of parameters or guidelines, there should also be a willingness to adjust on the fly.
Does the pitching coach think he's laboring, taking more time than usual in between pitches, struggling with command? Does the team trainer notice any changes in the player's recovery routine after pitching? Also worthy of consideration: the player's physical makeup -- the way he takes care of himself through conditioning and nutrition -- and the efficiency of his pitching mechanics.
All of these factors should be considered with a team trying to be vigilant with protecting its player's best interests.
"A pitching injury occurs when a pitcher loses a battle of his arm breaking down over the season versus repairing over the season," Fleisig said.
Feedback from the player can also instructive. To that end, Norris was adamant about wanting to remain in the game.
"I wanted to stay out there. Obviously, it's his decision, but I'm glad he left me in," Norris said. "Regardless of what people think, that shows the confidence he has in me -- even to let me go back in the second inning. I appreciate that, for sure."
Norris and the Tigers can only hope the decision isn't one that comes with regrets down the road.