The Escape: The night Wade Davis cemented his status as the best reliever in baseball

The Royals’ Wade Davis has been the most dominant reliever in baseball the last two seasons, with an ERA of 0.97.
The Royals’ Wade Davis has been the most dominant reliever in baseball the last two seasons, with an ERA of 0.97.

On a night last October, as a hard rain passed through Kansas City and the American League championship teetered in a cool breeze, the Bullpen Cyborg had a sentient thought:


In a split-second, Wade Davis had processed the situation and assessed the percentages. He understood his fate. For once, a great escape was unlikely, a complete survival improbable, even for the greatest reliever in baseball. Even for a man nicknamed after a machine.

They call Wade Davis a cyborg, and in truth, he has never cared for the nickname. He is human, he says. His arm aches after his outings. He is flawed like the rest of us. His brilliance is man-made, a dominance fueled by a potent mix of mental preparation, ice-cold confidence and a nagging self-doubt.

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So it was on Oct. 23, 2015, the night the Royals faced the Toronto Blue Jays in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series. It was the ninth inning, of course. The Royals led 4-3. The Toronto Blue Jays had runners on second and third with just one out. Inside Kauffman Stadium, a crowd of more than 44,000 had tensely come to its feet.

The Royals were two outs away from a second straight trip to the World Series. The Blue Jays were one hit away from stealing the lead in the top of the ninth. In the middle of the maelstrom stood Davis. He dug his right foot into the dirt, peered toward home plate and offered a unspoken concession.

“I kind of mentally just said, ‘One is probably going to score,’ ” Davis says now. “ ‘But just keep it tied.’ 

In the Royals’ bullpen, reliever Luke Hochevar was busy warming up, his eyes shifting toward home plate between pitches. On the mound, Davis took the sign from catcher Salvador Perez and threw a 97 mph fastball to Toronto leadoff man Ben Revere. Ball one.

Inside the Royals dugout, pitching coach Dave Eiland rested his arms on a railing and leaned toward manager Ned Yost.

“If anybody can get out of this,” Eiland said, “it’s him.”

One thousand and fifty-one days before Game 6, a baseball man named Gene Watson climbed into a pickup truck in Kansas and pointed it toward his home in Texas. It was Dec. 8, 2012, and Watson, the Royals’ director of pro scouting, had just returned from the winter meetings in Nashville, Tenn. Royals officials had spent the week looking for the missing piece, a workhorse pitcher to anchor their starting rotation. As Watson powered down Interstate 35, that piece was still missing.

For weeks, the Royals had pondered a possible trade with the Tampa Bay Rays, the discussions heating up over the previous three days. The Royals coveted James Shields, a frontline starter with a strong penchant for leadership.

The Rays wanted outfielder Wil Myers, the top prospect in the Royals’ system. The Rays balked at a one-for-one trade, but they were open to expanding the deal. A small-market team with a limited budget, the Rays needed salary relief. As the talks continued, they offered another right-handed pitcher who was set to become moderately expensive.

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That pitcher was Wade Allen Davis, a 6-foot-5 starter from Lake Wales, Fla. The Royals’ front office was intrigued.

“We felt like he could be at least a fourth starter,” Watson says now. “But there was more ceiling (for him) in the pen.”

Davis, a right-hander, had come through the Rays’ system as a starter, but by 2012, they had shifted him to the bullpen, where he posted a 2.43 ERA in 70  1/3 innings.

Dadgum. Who would have known back then that he was going to be the absolute best?

Royals manager Ned Yost on Wade Davis

That performance was spectacular. But the current financial calculus was more complex. In the months before the 2011 season, the Rays had signed Davis to a long-term extension with three team options worth $35.1 million over the next seven years.

As the Royals’ brain trust convened at the winter meetings, they came to a consensus: They were comfortable with the return in the trade. The question: Were they ready to part with a package of four prospects, including Myers, right-handed pitcher Jake Odorizzi and left-hander Mike Montgomery? In a late-night meeting, Royals general manager Dayton Moore started scribbling the names of KC prospects onto a white board, position by position. One by one, he removed the names of the young players headed to Tampa Bay.

“Is this still a good system?” he asked.

The day after the winter meetings, as Watson pushed his car down I-35, he pondered the future. The Royals had won 72 games in 2012. Their vaunted Process had hit a plateau. The club needed a spark.

Midway through the drive, Watson’s cellphone rang. The deal was done. James Shields and Wade Davis were Royals.

“If we don’t do the deal,” Watson says, “we probably win 74 or 75 games that year and we’re all out of here.”

Every great escape begins with an unanticipated move. Wade Davis began his with a 2-0 breaking ball at the knees.

As the ninth inning of Game 6 continued at Kauffman Stadium, Davis looked in at Toronto left fielder Ben Revere, a speedy left-handed hitter with an uncanny ability to put the ball in play. From 2012 to 2015, Revere had recorded the third-highest contact rate in all of baseball, connecting on 91.8 percent of his swings. With two runners in scoring position and one out, he was the worst kind of foe. Davis needed a strikeout. Revere rarely whiffed.

As Davis stared down Revere, he missed with a 97 mph fastball for ball one. Davis followed with a 93 mph cutter that darted too far inside.

During the 2015 season, Revere had gotten ahead 2-0 in 75 plate appearances. He had reached base 53 percent of the time. He was batting .358 in those situations.

Davis needed something extra. He came set and unfurled a breaking ball that bit hard and spun across the zone for strike one. In the television booth above home plate, Fox Sports’ Harold Reynolds nearly gasped.

“A little 2-0 slider,” Reynolds said. “I’m sure that Revere was not thinking that was coming his direction, that’s for sure.”

If the breaking ball was daring, it followed the theme of the night. One hour earlier, Davis sat on an exercise bike inside Kauffman Stadium, maintaining a sweat as rain poured from the sky, halting the game. Davis had entered in the top of the eighth, after Ryan Madson gave up a game-tying, two-run homer to José Bautista. Davis finished off the Blue Jays in the eighth, but then the rains came, prompting players from both teams to seek cover.

Davis returned to the tunnel outside the clubhouse, where he found Eiland, the Royals’ pitching coach. On most nights, Eiland says, the deadline for a pitcher to return after a rain delay can be 30 to 45 minutes. But this was not most nights. Davis told Eiland he was fine to go. Eiland nodded, left and returned five minutes later. Davis was still fine.

“You’ve got to listen to the player,” Eiland says now. “Not only listen to him, but you’ve got to hear conviction. And it was 100 percent. He was 100 percent convicted with his words and the look in his eye.”

5.0 Wade Davis’ wins above replacement since he joined the Royals in 2013, which includes a -2.1 WAR in 2013, when he was used as a starter

By that point, of course, the Royals were already in survival mode, every option on the table. Davis had been on alert in the eighth inning, with the Royals leading 3-1. But the impending rainstorm had scuttled Yost’s plans. Five months later, Yost says he likely would have used Davis in the eighth, if not for the storm.

“I knew if I pitched him in the eighth, it was going to rain,” Yost says. “I knew rain was coming in 15 minutes. And I knew, in looking at it, it’s probably going to be anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour rain delay.”

As it was, Yost needed Davis in the eighth inning anyway. Thirty minutes later, Davis hopped off an exercise bike and played some light catch in a tunnel. Eiland checked on him again. Davis looked him in the eye and said he was good. But as the delay dragged on, he began to worry.

“I shouldn’t say I was nervous,” Davis says. “I think I was more worried that I would shut down. We had thrown a lot to that point in the season already, and the year before. I think I was worried about just maybe not being able to physically have the same stuff.”

As Davis took the mound in the ninth, his fears were assuaged during a lengthy at-bat with Kevin Pillar, who drew a walk, stole second and represented the go-ahead run. By the time Revere stood in the box, Davis felt like himself again. His arm was working. His breaking stuff had bite. He drew the count even at 2-2 on a 97 mph fastball on the corner. He buried Revere with an 88 mph curveball.

As Kauffman Stadium exploded, Revere returned to the dugout and swung away at a dugout trash can. The Royals were one out from the World Series. Davis was one out from a historic escape. The batter was Josh Donaldson, the presumptive American League Most Valuable Player. Inside the dugout, Eiland and Yost shared another glance.

“He was still facing Wade,” Yost says now. “He was still facing Wade.”

When the Royals acquired Wade Davis before the 2013 season, the thought process was simple: General manager Dayton Moore believed Davis could be a back-of-the-rotation starter on a team starved for starting pitching. If he burned out as starter, Davis could move to the bullpen.

The Royals could not know, of course, that they had landed one of the greatest relief weapons in the history of baseball. They could not know that more than three years after that, the James Shields Trade might as well be named for Wade Davis.

“Dadgum,” Yost says, “who would have known back then that he was going to be the absolute best?”

Yost remembers the meeting like it was yesterday. In the weeks before the 2014 season, he summoned Davis to his office. Hochevar had blown out his elbow. He needed Tommy John surgery. The Royals wanted to move Davis to the bullpen. Davis listened for a moment, then spoke.

“Whatever I do,” Yost remembers Davis saying, “I just want to be good at it.”

Two years later, Yost shrugs at the story. How could anyone know?

“The best ever,” he says.

0.97 Wade Davis’ ERA the past two seasons, making him the first reliever to post a sub-1.00 ERA in at least 100 innings over two consecutive years

Inside the Royals’ clubhouse, the admiration is the same. Teammate Kris Medlen calls Davis’ dominance “just incredible.” Hochevar spends Davis’ outings in the bullpen, guessing the number of strikeouts he’ll record. Eiland says he’s never seen a reliever this good — and that includes a stint in New York with closer Mariano Rivera.

This may sound like hyperbole or bias. The numbers suggest it is not.

In the last two seasons, Davis has recorded a 0.97 ERA and 187 strikeouts in 139  1/3 innings. His WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) has hovered under 0.9. He has allowed just three home runs in 164  1/3 innings, including the postseason. He has gone from also-ran starter to an All-Star reliever to closer for a world champion after supplanting the injured Greg Holland. After two seasons in the bullpen, his place in Royals lore is secure.

“Everybody was expecting the regression,” Medlen says. “And last year, it wasn’t there. It was like: ‘This is who I am. This is how good I am.’ It’s incredible to see.”

Consider: In the history of baseball, no relief pitcher has logged more than 100 innings across two seasons with an ERA under 1.00. No reliever has matched Davis’ skill of suppressing homers. In a new era of bullpen dominance, no reliever has matched this blend of pure power and kinetic mastery.

“He can repeat his delivery,” Eiland says. “That’s why he’s able to command three pitches to both sides of the plate. It’s not something that just comes. It’s something he has to work at.”

The closest analog to Davis might be former Oakland A’s closer Dennis Eckersley, who posted a 1.03 ERA across the 1989 and 1990 seasons. Or perhaps it is former Braves closer Craig Kimbrel, who posted a 1.01 ERA in 2012 before logging a 1.21 mark the next season. Then there is Davis, who put up a 1.00 ERA in 72 innings in 2014, and backed it up with a 0.94 ERA last season.

“I spent three years with Rivera,” Eiland says. “And as great as he was, and not to take anything away from him, I never saw Mariano have a run like this.”

Back at Kauffman Stadium on Oct. 23, one batter separated the Royals from their second straight World Series. One man separated Davis from the greatest escape of his career. The batter was Josh Donaldson, a 29-year-old slugger who hit 41 homers and led the American League with 123 RBIs. In 27 days, Donaldson would receive the American League MVP award, but as he strode to the plate inside Kauffman Stadium, Davis felt a sense of calm.

In seven career meetings, Donaldson had managed just one hit off Davis. In his previous four at-bats, Davis had struck him out four times, including once earlier in the series. As Davis cradled the baseball in his hand, he knew one thing: Donaldson could not catch up to his four-seam fastball. That knowledge would give him the edge.

“He generally has to cheat,” Davis says. “He has to start earlier on my fastball, so anything I throw other than that has worked out pretty well.”

Davis started the at-bat with a 97 mph fastball. He missed down and away. Ball one. The at-bat, Davis says, would turn on the next pitch. He came back with a 97 mph fastball on the outer half of the plate. Donaldson swung late. In that moment, Davis says, he knew his next move.

“I got one by him, and I knew he was probably going to cheat a little bit more on the next pitches,” Davis says.

Two pitches later, Davis kicked his left leg upward and unleashed a 94 mph cutter that slid toward the outer half of the plate. Donaldson had begun his swing early and couldn’t hold up. He rolled over the pitch, sending a sharp grounder to third base. Davis flung his glove in the air.

“People don’t really talk about that as much, looking back on our run,” Eiland says now, standing on a side field on a recent Arizona morning. “But that night — pitching, then sitting an hour, then coming back out. Absolutely incredible.”

The Royals celebrated and sprayed champagne in their clubhouse Friday at Kauffman Stadium after beating the Blue Jays 4-3 in Game 6 of the ALCS, clinching their second American League pennant in as many years.

Nine days after Game 6, the Royals closed out the World Series with a 7-2 victory over the New York Mets at Citi Field. Backup infielder Christian Colon drove in the go-ahead run with a pinch-hit single in the top of the 12th. When the hit dropped into left-center field, Ned Yost had one thought: We just won the World Series.

“You knew the game was over,” Yost says. “In my mind: ‘This game is over.’ We still had to go out and get three outs, but I got Wade coming in. This game is over right now.”

Five months after Game 6, on a morning in late March, Davis slipped through the clubhouse in Surprise, Ariz., and plopped down on a padded seat in front of his locker. He is 30 years old now. He is entering his fourth season in Kansas City. After one of the greatest two-year runs in relief history, he is finally starting a season as a full-time closer, replacing Holland, who underwent Tommy John surgery last fall.

Holland was one of the best closers in baseball, saving 125 games from 2013 to 2015. Yet the Royals may have upgraded at the position — if such a thing is possible.

In the offseason, Davis returned to his home in New York’s Hudson Valley. He attacked his infamous training regimen, spending late nights pushing his body to the limit. He prepared his mind for another season of battles. In the last two seasons, Davis has pitched 164  1/3 innings and thrown 2,616 pitches. He has surrendered just three home runs. Asked, he can rattle off the names of the men who have beaten him.

José Bautista. Kole Calhoun. Logan Morrison.

For Davis, the mistakes fuel him as much as the dominating nights on the mound. The process offers the greatest test. On a quiet day this winter, Davis took a few minutes to re-watch the ninth inning of Game 6. He did not watch every pitch, he said. He did not need to. But as Kauffman Stadium appeared on his screen, he sought to re-live that inning, to see the escape anew, to remember what the moment felt like.

“The plan worked out OK,” he said.