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Heart-to-heart talk helped Derek Norris get his head in the game

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Derek Norris sat in the visitor's dugout, staring at the ground with a grim look. As his teammates headed to the clubhouse, the Nationals' top catching prospect was joined by hitting coach Troy Gingrich of the Harrisburg Senators and the two sat in silence in a near-empty park.

After nearly 15 minutes, as fans left Prince George's Stadium in Bowie, Norris and Gingrich walked down the third-base line, through the gate near the left-field foul pole and toward the Harrisburg clubhouse. Norris stood outside the clubhouse, getting into his batting stance while Gingrich watched on a night that had seen the catcher's average fall to .137.

That was more than a month ago, in what Norris called "a heart-to-heart talk" with Gingrich that was as much about his frame of mind as it was about the mechanical changes he had made since last fall. The next night, Norris hit a long homer at Bowie and late last month he hit four homers in five games to raise his batting average to .236.

"I am not trying to press so much," said Norris, sitting in the dugout before batting practice during a recent homestand. "I am just relaxing and not trying to do so much. Obviously, I got off to a slow start. I am just keeping with my routine and have confidence it will come around."

Norris, a 22-year-old Wichita native, entered this season as the No. 2 prospect in the Nationals' system according to Baseball America. While Wilson Ramos, 23, has distinguished himself behind the plate with the Nationals this spring, trade rumors involving veteran catcher Ivan Rodriguez have made their way to Norris.

"It really does not affect me a whole lot. I am in Double-A Harrisburg and trying to win a championship, and that is all I think about," said Norris, who helped Potomac win the Carolina League title last year.

Norris was able to pick the brain of Rodriguez during spring training. "It is definitely an honor just to be around him, let alone speak to him for advice. I am sure he would make a real good manager," Norris said.

While Gingrich is proud of his offensive improvement, the Nationals' front office may be more impressed with the improvement of Norris back of the plate. That includes assistant general manager Bob Boone, a seven-time Gold Glove catcher in 19 big-league seasons.

"He is starting to get it. His catching is really coming along," Boone said. "He has always had a feel for calling a game. He throws very well. He is getting better. From two years ago, it is miles better."

Doug Harris, the Nats' director of player development, said Gingrich has done a great job with Norris as a hitter.

"But it goes both ways. Derek has bought into what Troy is teaching," Harris said.

A possible trade of Rodriguez "will not impact Derek," Harris said. While there is a chance Norris could be promoted to Class AAA Syracuse, Harris pointed out the value of a player staying with one team the entire season and competing for a championship. "It is the mindset here. We are trying to create a winning atmosphere," he said.

Norris was the Nationals' fourth-round pick in the 2007 draft. A former third baseman who grew up as a fan of Royals legend George Brett, he played just two years as a catcher before he was drafted. He turned down a chance to play at Wichita State and made his pro debut that summer.

There have been some bumps along the way: He broke the hamate bone in his left hand in the fall of 2009 and was hit in the head with a pitch early in the 2010 season, that caused him to miss a month. This April, he was on the disabled list for seven days with a right ankle injury.

Now Norris is healthy and starting to hit again. And thanks to that late-night session in Bowie with Gingrich, Norris appears headed for another strong season — and perhaps one day a promotion to Nationals Park.

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