If you want a sure thing, betting on Wade Davis to throw a scoreless inning is pretty dang close—and that’s what the Royals did on Saturday.
With the score 3-2 (Kansas City had the 3, Oakland had the 2) Ned Yost sent Wade Davis out to pitch the eighth inning. As long as Wade’s available and the game’s close, that’s pretty much a no-brainer; if memory serves Wade last gave up a run during the Great Depression—and if it hasn’t really been that long it sure seems that long. So sending Wade Davis out to hold a one-run lead late in a game should make you feel, as Mark Twain put it, more confident than a Christian holding four aces.
But then all hell broke loose.
Davis throws three pitches: a fastball in the mid-to-upper nineties, a cutter in the low nineties and a curve in the mid-eighties. Most relievers don’t have time to get a feel for more than three pitches and some get away with two.
And lack of time is a big deal for relievers.
A starting pitcher might discover his slider isn’t worth a damn in the first inning, but throw it during warmups or in counts where he can afford to bounce a pitch and find it an inning or two later.
Relievers can’t do that; they don’t have enough time. If a pitch isn’t working they’ve got to drop it and throw what is working; which is a fine theory unless all three pitches aren’t working—and that’s pretty much what happened to Wade Davis on Saturday.
Recently Davis had an appearance where he was "flying open" and that meant he was missing his location on his arm side. Saturday Davis was "cutting himself off" and that meant he was missing location to his glove side.
And if it just dawned in you that a whole lot of stuff can go wrong when a pitcher tries to put a baseball where he wants to, congratulations; you’re starting to understand.
Walking the leadoff batter: Sam Fuld
With a one-run lead in the late innings just about the last thing a pitcher wants to do is walk the leadoff batter because the offense has all three outs available to move the runner around the bases.
Davis started leadoff hitter Sam Fuld with a fastball for a ball, but then threw two cutters for called strikes—so far, so good.
Then Wade tried to finish Fuld with two curves, but both missed and the second one bounced in the dirt. Whatever Davis saw in those curves he didn’t like much, because he canned the pitch and never threw it again in that inning.
So now Davis was down to two pitches: the fastball and cutter. With the count 3-2 and needing to throw a strike, Wade threw a fastball and missed badly. Fuld walked after seeing six pitches and the only pitch Wade threw for a strike was his cutter.
After Fuld walked, Davis turned toward second and made a sign with his thumb and little finger, reminding Alcides Escobar that if the ball was hit back to the mound, he was going to turn and throw the ball to second base—Esky needed to be there.
Walking Brett Lawrie
If you were paying attention to the Fuld at bat it was no surprise that Wade started Brett Lawrie with two cutters; the first one missed and Lawrie fouled the second one off. Davis went back to the fastball and missed once again. With the count 2-1 Davis threw another fastball and Lawrie hit it home run distance, but just foul.
That convinced Perez and Davis to go back to the cutter, but Davis couldn’t throw it for a strike; this time he missed high. Another full count, another cutter and Lawrie fouled it straight back. The cutter hung and caught too much of the zone, so on the next pitch Perez and Davis went back to the fastball—and Wade missed Salvador’s mitt by a couple feet.
In a rare show of emotion Davis spun away from home plate, clearly upset with himself.
And it just got worse
Designated Hitter Stephen Vogt was at the plate. Going into Sunday's game, Vogt is hitting .298 and slugging .535 so those numbers were even more daunting Saturday afternoon. Davis threw three straight balls to Vogt, two of them were cutters (the first one was in the dirt), one was a fastball and all of them were inaccurate.
So let’s assess the situation: Davis has the tying run on second base, the winning run on first, a guy who is hitting the hell out of the ball at the plate, a 3-0 count and none of his pitches are going where he wants them to go.
This is the part where Wade Davis stayed cool
People were talking about Wade showing emotion after he got out of this jam, but if he didn’t stay cool while he was in the jam, things might have ended differently.
On a 3-0 count with Davis struggling to find the zone, Vogt was taking a pitch; one more walk and the bases would be loaded with nobody out. Davis threw a fastball for a strike and Vogt was now in a 3-1 hitter’s count. Vogt was looking fastball, got one and swung at it even though it was down in the zone and probably ball four.
Ned Yost has said he knew things were going to be OK after Davis threw his first strike to Vogt, but I’m not that smart. To me it looked like Davis had found the right release point on his fastball, but at that point it was the only pitch he could control. Throw three straight fastballs to a guy with a slugging percentage over .500 and something bad was likely to happen.
So Wade Davis—cool as a cucumber—threw a cutter.
I wasn’t expecting that pitch and neither was Vogt; he froze and the pitch was called a strike. It wasn’t a great cutter—it was up and barely clipped the outside edge of the strike zone—but it was good enough. Perez pulled the pitch into the zone as he received it, the home plate umpire called it strike three and Stephen Vogt stormed off leaving a couple obscenities in his wake.
That’s when I thought Davis had things under control.
The next batter, Ben Zobrist swung at the first pitch he saw—a high fastball—and hit a one-hopper back to the mound. Remember that sign Davis made to Escobar? Wade snagged the ball, stayed cool—took time to set his feet—and started a 1-6-3 inning-ending double play.
This is what makes Wade Davis special
When good pitchers have their best stuff, they can make the game look easy. When good pitchers are scuffling, but still have the smarts and guts to succeed, you might get to see some something out of the ordinary. Saturday afternoon, in the eighth inning of a one-run ball game, Wade Davis showed us why he’s special.