Davis firing away in uncharted role with Rays
Hard-throwing right-hander succeeding as much-needed reliever
MIAMI -- Wade Davis is making the best of his situation.
After spending his first two-plus seasons with the Rays as a starter, he now finds himself in the bullpen defining himself as a reliever.
The 26-year-old right-hander became the odd-man out at the end of Spring Training, when fellow right-hander Jeff Niemann beat him out for the final spot in the rotation. Niemann won the battle in part because of what Tampa Bay thought Davis could bring to the bullpen.
"We thought we would see him just come out for an inning or two and let it fly -- 95, 96 [mph]," manager Joe Maddon said.
Davis would rather be a starter. Everybody with the Rays knows that. But rather than sulk, he handled the news with aplomb and has worked hard since to be of use. The fruits of Davis' labor are starting to be seen.
Davis put on a pitching clinic in New York on Thursday night, when he shut down the Yankees in order in the sixth and seventh innings of Tampa Bay's 7-3 win. And he did so in dominating fashion, striking out four of the six batters he faced.
"I've never seen that out of him," Maddon said. "Even as a starter, that kind of two-inning dominance -- it was just incredibly gifted the way he pitched [Thursday night]."
Davis returned to the mound in Miami against the Marlins during Saturday night's 13-4 Rays win and he allowed a single -- the first hit he had allowed in his last 7 1/3 innings on the road -- in one inning. Davis carries a 1-0 record with a 2.20 ERA and 28 strikeouts in 20 appearances (28 2/3 innings) into Tuesday's series opener with the Mets at Tropicana Field.
"The thing about him that's almost uncanny -- his curveball, the velocity of it and the command of it, and he's throwing it for a strike," Maddon said. "When you're able to do that, and them come back with [a] 95, 96 [mph] downhill four-seam fastball, that really puts a lot of hesitation in the hitter's mind. He was really, really good [Thursday night]."
With each outing, Davis seems to be drawing closer to where he wants to be in his new role.
"It's getting better," Davis said. "[My arm] is starting to fire a little quicker instead of taking longer to get loose."
Davis said the toughest part has been the recovery process after pitching, but that too is improving.
"It's just been a process," said Davis. "I went back-to-back [outings] the other day, and I actually felt better the second day. I went an inning, then went two innings the next day, and I felt better. So that's good for my mind."
Maddon also recognizes that Davis' ability to recover quicker is a necessary adjustment.
"He's doing better with it," Maddon said. "He's recovering more quickly after outings, and that benefits us."
Another adjustment has been the preparation. Readying himself to pitch every day is a lot different than preparing to pitch every fifth day.
"I'm doing less on my throwing," Davis said. "Doing less physically on my workouts as far as the intensity of it, just so I'm able to go into the game and be ready for that. But the arm's just been bouncing back better. It's been ready quicker."
When Davis is on the mound he wears a permanent scowl much like the Joker does a permanent smile. Maddon thinks Davis has the potential to be more than just an intimidating look. In his "mind's eye," as he likes to say, Davis can be a force out of the bullpen.
"I've thought that all along," Maddon said. "He can be that kind of force. Right now, there's no reason why he can't pitch at the very end of the game. Anybody that comes out like he did at Yankee Stadium against that part of the lineup and threw it like that can pitch any time, anywhere."
While the Rays hope to get a lot from Davis out of the bullpen this season, he is still ultimately seen as a starter, though it is not necessary to remind Davis of that fact.
"We spoke to him about seeing him as a starter again, but for now, we felt it was the best way to impact us this year," Maddon said. "And he's embraced it and done a great job. So it's not the kind of conversation that's necessary to have with a guy on a consistent basis."
When Davis eventually returns to the starting rotation, Maddon believes he will be even better as a starter due to his work in the bullpen.
"Part of it, I think, is the leverage moments you're pitching in [pitching out of the bullpen]," Maddon said. "When a relief pitcher walks out, he normally goes into a tight situation. It's not comfortable. ... I would think you would be able to learn from that as a starter, when things got hot in a game that you have something to draw back on from those hot moments as a reliever."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.