MLB

New Norris shutting hitters down for Astros

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HOUSTON (AP)

(Eds: Serves as 1st Ld-Writethru on state lines. )By KRISTIE RIEKENAP Sports Writer

After a 6-11 season in 2011, Bud Norris approached Astros manager Brad Mills and said he wanted to be a different pitcher.

Now he's proving he was serious about a turnaround. He's won each of his four starts in May and his 0.35 ERA this month is a major-league best for a starter.

''I knew that I needed to take that next step in my career,'' the 27-year-old said. ''Going into my third full season I really wanted to make some more strides. I just told him that I was going to go out there and be accountable and be one of those guys that's going to pitch six, seven, eight innings every time.''

Houston pitching coach Doug Brocail always saw Norris as a talented pitcher, but said that in the past, he was lacking a key ingredient for success.

''Bud's a guy that I think early in his career up in the major leagues didn't know how to win,'' Brocail said. ''And that's just not learned overnight. Now we're getting to see him get deeper in games and get out of big jams.''

That has pushed him to a 5-1 record in nine starts and helped the Astros move out of the National League Central basement. They were in third place in the division with a 21-23 record entering Thursday's games. Houston was off on Thursday before the team opens a three-game series with the Dodgers on Friday.

Norris went 9-10 with a 4.92 ERA in 27 starts in 2010, his first full season in the majors. He lowered his ERA to 3.77 in 31 starts a year ago, but that improvement didn't lead to more victories. A reason for that according to Brocail was that Norris didn't know how to pitch his way out of trouble or was pulled when things got dicey.

This season, Brocail and Mills have kept him in games when he's gotten into jams, because they know he'll never improve if they don't allow him to pitch out of those situations.

The best example of that philosophy came in a 1-0 win over Pittsburgh on May 11. He allowed two hits and committed an error in the sixth inning to load the bases with no outs, but wriggled out of the jam when he retired the next three Pirates, striking out two of them.

''You have to leave him out there,'' Brocail said referring to that game. ''You got yourself in it. Get yourself out of it. And that's just another stepping stone towards learning how to win and he's starting to learn how to win. If we don't leave him out here, he's never going to learn how to win.''

Norris isn't able to put his finger on any one thing that has helped his success this season, but said Brocail and catcher Jason Castro have helped his progress.

''It's a collection of things,'' he said. ''I'm getting more comfortable out there each time. I'm getting a little older and a little wiser. I'm figuring things out slowly, but surely. It's just a trust and confidence thing and knowing that the work you are putting in is going to pay off.''

Norris has allowed 15 hits and nine walks in his four starts this month. But he's gained confidence by only allowing one earned run in that span.

''They're going to get hits and they're going to get walks and they're going to get guys on base and that's their job, but my job is to not let them touch home plate,'' he said. ''That's the No. 1 priority.''

Norris has added a changeup with a different grip this season, which has allowed him to pitch off his fastball more and rely less on his slider. Brocail wants Norris to be more aggressive with his fastball, so he has him only throwing it and changeups in his bullpen sessions this season.

''The more aggressive Bud is with his fastball, the deeper he gets in ball games,'' Brocail said. ''I don't know if he realizes that.''

Norris has pitched seven innings three times this season and has lasted less than six only once. Mills believes he'll continue to pile up quality starts for the team because he learns from each outing.

''He realizes what he has to do and he builds on it,'' Mills said. ''Bud's a pretty smart guy. When you get him out there in situations, he's able to make adjustments as he goes along from start to start. If this didn't go right, he finds out why and then he analyzes it, tries to improve and get better.''

Tagged: Angels, Astros, Brad Mills, Bud Norris

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