Perhaps the most underappreciated inning of the Royals’ improbable postseason journey occurred in Baltimore during the first game of the American League Championship Series.
The Orioles had battled back from a 5-1 deficit to tie the score, but reliever Zach Britton walked the first three Royals in the ninth.
When the Royals failed to score, the orange towels at Camden Yards were whipped into a frenzy, and surely the Orioles would ride the momentum for a run.
But standing at the top of the Royals’ dugout, about to pitch his second inning and face the heart of the Orioles order — Alejandro De Aza, Adam Jones and Nelson Cruz — was Wade Davis with one thought.
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“I went up to the clubhouse, drank a Red Bull, and I was like, ‘They’re not going to get me,’” Davis said. “‘I won’t let it happen.’
“It doesn’t always happen like that, but having that approach, it gives you a better chance of being successful.”
Down the Orioles went, each by swinging strikeout, a total of 11 pitches thrown. Alex Gordon led off the 10th with a home run, and the Royals were on their way to a sweep.
Davis went on to post a near flawless postseason, much like his regular season, and now he begins 2015 in something of an unfamiliar place — with a definitive role.
He’s the eighth-inning master. Not a starter, which he has been in three of his five full major-league seasons, or a reliever working the sixth or seventh as often as the eighth as he did for a year with the Rays.
In each of those years, including his first season in the pen, Davis would build up innings throughout the spring. Not this year. The workload will be different. How so? He doesn’t know.
“I’m kind of winging it here,” he said.
The Royals picked up their $7 million option on Davis days after the World Series, the first step in recreating the bullpen magic for this season.
Davis was epic, surrendering 38 hits in 72 innings while striking out 109 with a 1.00 ERA. His filthy cutter helped induce a league-high swing-and-miss rate of 36.4 percent of swings.
Relief pitchers who serve as a bridge to the closer don’t win Cy Young Awards, but Davis was the highest vote-getter among Royals pitchers. It seemed appropriate that Davis finished eighth in the voting, and the ninth-inning guy, Greg Holland, finished ninth.
His season started with uncertainty. Davis had been a starter in his first two full seasons in Tampa and worked out of the bullpen in his third.
When he became a Royal along with James Shields in the Wil Myers trade, Davis worked as a starter for most of the 2013 season.
But when eighth-inning specialist Luke Hochevar was lost for the season in the spring and underwent Tommy John surgery, Davis went back to the bullpen.
“We got Herrera, Hoch and Holland,” Yost said. “It would have been triple H instead of HDH. But when Hoch got hurt, that left a big hole. We needed that quality arm we trusted to get to Holly.”
Davis started hot. He surrendered three earned runs in his first four appearances and one in his next 26. But a late June game against Dodgers, a game in which Davis surrendered a run and earned the loss, changed his mindset and provided a pivot point in his approach.
“I remember I had the best stuff I had all year,” Davis said. “The first fastball I though hit 98 (mph), I had never done that in my life.
“I completely lost focus. I thought it was going to be easy.”
Davis surrendered the winning run on a bases-loaded hit by pitch. He returned to the clubhouse, sat at his locker and wondered how he let the game get away.
Here was Davis, off to a tremendous start, his cutter overmatching hitters for weeks, but he wanted more command of the moment.
“I just started changing everything about my mindset,” Davis said. “I started thinking, ‘When I go into a game, this is what I’m going to do and nobody is going to stop it.’
“If I work hard enough and put in the preparation then that’s what’s going to happen. Instead of the mindset ‘all I have to do is work hard enough,’ all I have to do is go out and make pitches. It’s like inducing your will on every individual pitch.”
That’s a more difficult task for a starter.
“You have to be OK with failure more as a starter because you’re going to give up runs every game,” Davis said. “As a reliever, you have a smaller sample size.”
But a vital one, especially for a team that relies heavily on its effective bullpen.