OAKLAND – If you’re curious whether Derek Norris had any inkling he was in for a career game Sunday, the answer is an emphatic no.
He took his pregame swings in the morning and felt so lousy he had to stop.
“My pregame routine went so terrible I had to leave the cage,” Norris said. “It felt like someone was twisting and pulling me in different directions when I was trying to swing the bat.”
Fast forward to game time. Norris came up not once, but twice with two runners on base and two outs. Twice Washington Nationals starter Gio Gonzalez ran the count to 3-0 and piped a fastball, and twice Norris ripped three-run homers over the Coliseum’s left field wall.
Two swings, six RBI. All in the first two innings of the A’s 9-1 drubbing of the Nationals that completed a three-game sweep on Mother’s Day.
[INSTANT REPLAY: A's roll Nats 9-1, complete the sweep]
Norris appropriately tipped his cap afterward to his mother, Jacque, who lives in Norris’ hometown of Goddard, Kansas and rarely gets to see her son play in person.
“Somewhere Mom was giving me the power and strength to do something special on her day,” he said. “It’s nice to be able to some way give it back to her.”
Not that Norris’ big game was a one-day occurrence. In one of the most encouraging 2014 storylines for the A’s, Norris is developing by leaps and bounds as a hitter, even if he still isn’t playing every day in Oakland’s by-the-book platoon system at catcher.
He’s hitting .385,which would lead the American League if had the required minimum number of plate appearances. Over his past 16 games, he is 21 for 43 (.488), and his six RBI tied for the most by an A’s catcher since at least 1914. Mickey Cochrane (1931) and Joe Asroth (1950) also had six.
A’s manager Bob Melvin rarely gives the green light to hitters on 3-0 counts. He also knew that Gonzalez, a former Athletic, wouldn’t expect Norris to be hacking away on 3-0. Then, after Norris’ first homer, Gonzalez made the mistake of grooving another 3-0 fastball the next time he stepped to the plate.
“A 3-0 fastball down the middle -- would you wait for that pitch, especially with two men on base?” Gonzalez said afterward. “I would have done the same thing.”
It wasn’t a happy return to the Coliseum for Gonzalez, an All-Star with the A’s in 2011 before he was traded to Washington the following offseason. One of the four players Oakland received in return happened to be Norris.
Gonzalez lasted just 4 1/3 innings and gave up nine hits and a season-high seven runs. Cameras caught him arguing with a teammate in the dugout after the second inning and being restrained by a coach. All Gonzalez would say about the incident postgame was that “nothing happened.”
After going deep in his first at-bat, Norris was shocked to find himself in the exact same scenario a second time and get another 3-0 pitch in his wheelhouse.
After circling the bases for a second time, his teammates were referring to him as “Three-oh Dino.”
“The last thing on my mind was he was gonna go there,” Norris said. “He threw it kinda middle- away the first at-bat. Maybe he thought he’d sneak one in there. I rarely miss those. Usually (it’s) not for a three-run homer, but usually it’s something hard, somewhere.”
A’s second baseman Nick Punto, who had three RBI on Sunday, was impressed that Norris kept his mechanics and didn’t drill himself into the ground swinging for the fences in that second at-bat.
Melvin and hitting coach Chili Davis both comment on how Norris is generating power while still keeping his swing compact.
“I just think his balance and the way his swing is now (is key),” Melvin said. “It’s short … All he has to do is put the barrel on it and it’s gonna go.”
Norris went 4 for 9 in the Washington series and was behind the plate Friday when Tommy Milone, another player Washington shipped to Oakland in the Gonzalez deal, threw eight shutout innings against the Nationals. While not necessarily bashing his old team, Norris didn’t hide his joy at playing well against them, a refreshingly honest take.
“The team that traded you, it’s always nice to stick it to ‘em,” he said with a smile.
His big day came on a special holiday against a special opponent. Maybe Norris should cut out of batting practice early more often.