When Doug Norman decommitted from Georgia a couple of years ago and then committed to LSU a week later, he had one, first thought: “It’s going to be kind of crazy when we travel to go play Georgia,” Norman said.
Crazy is almost here.
When LSU meets Georgia in Athens this weekend, Norman returns to a place he loves and a university he planned to attend before the firing of coach Dave Perno in 2013.
He’s not shy about expressing his feelings for the town in northeast Georgia and some of its inhabitants.
“Love the town. The girls are,” he said with a long pause and smile, “very attractive.”
Ranked no worse than No. 3 nationally, LSU (31-6, 10-5 Southeastern Conference) travels to Athens to play the Bulldogs (20-17, 6-9) in a series that opens a critical second half of the SEC schedule. The Tigers are just a game and a half back of the overall SEC lead and are on the fence as a national seed in NCAA projections.
Norman, meanwhile, will arrive in Athens as a reliever — not in the starting role he occupied during the first month of the year. He’s beginning to settle into the bullpen spot — a transition that’s seen his velocity rise and his hit numbers fall.
Norman has gone from a midweek starter who allowed 20 hits in three starts to a reliever who’s pitched 14 innings of eight-hit ball as LSU enters its game Wednesday night against Lamar.
“I like the way he’s throwing the ball out of the bullpen,” pitching coach Alan Dunn said. “His stuff has gone a tick up velocity-wise. The approach he’s taken has been very good in that role. I like where he is right now.”
Does Norman like it? After all, it was a demotion of sorts.
“The transition to the bullpen was great,” he said. “I wasn’t down about it or anything like that.”
Norman entered as one of a host of highly touted freshman pitchers as part of the Tigers’ No. 1-ranked signing class. He has a funky, batter-fooling delivery, a fastball in the 90s and a nasty changeup.
Heck, he’s a guy who had a 0.69 ERA his senior year of high school, breaking a record at the school set by Alex Wood, now a pitcher for the Braves.
Everything’s not so simple in college, Norman learned. He admits to a “learning curve” that he didn’t expect.
“Things I needed to experience more,” he said. “I don’t think I was anywhere near pitching to how good I can be in those starts. Throwing the way I did, I gave up a lot of hits. I feel like I’ve gotten every hitter I’ve ever faced here to two strikes and just struggled with that put-away pitch.”
Of the 28 batters that reached base in Norman’s first three starts, a whopping 12 of them did so with two strikes.
He found the put-away pitch in LSU’s last road series. Norman threw three scoreless innings of three-hit ball in a series-opening win at Alabama on April 2.
He’s finding the groove as LSU heads to a place special to him.
“He’s a little giddy,” fellow freshman pitcher Alex Lange said. “He loves Athens. He talks about it all of the time. He loves the campus and stuff.”
Norman said he fell in love with SEC baseball during his visits to Athens, a gem among college towns that sits three hours from Norman’s South Carolina home.
“Thing was, it was the first SEC school I visited,” he said. “I loved the idea of the SEC. I was like, ‘Wow.’ ”
Perno’s firing changed his commitment. New coach Scott Stricklin didn’t offer him the same percent of scholarship as Perno. It was a “drastic” difference, Norman said. There were no hard feelings. He called Stricklin one night and decommitted.
He contacted Dunn and former LSU recruiting coordinator Javi Sanchez. They watched him pitch a few days later, and he committed to LSU that week.
It was a logical move. He calls LSU a “dream school.” Norman’s mother grew up in Baton Rouge and graduated from LSU. His grandfather has been a professor at LSU for 50 years.
His parents and a sister will drive down from Fort Mill, South Carolina, for the game. He has a few high school buddies coming, too.
This isn’t Norman’s true homecoming, though. In a month, LSU ends the regular season at South Carolina, a school just 45 minutes away from his home.
“I should have a full stadium then,” he said.
Doug Norman has thrived as a reliever after a hit-filled three starts.
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter @DellengerAdv.