In one of the bigger surprises in Pac-10 Baseball this year, worst beat first on Sunday. The dead-last Stanford Cardinal, losers of nine straight conference games and an overall losing record in this 2007 season, beat the hottest team in the nation. Arizona owned a 13-game Pac-10 winning streak and had won their last 16 straight games this season to reach a 30-6 overall record. Stanford took down the Wildcats, 6-3. How?
The Cardinal put together timely hitting. They played error-free defense for just the seventh time all season. The starting pitching from freshman Jeffrey Inman also kept the game in hand through the first five innings.
But the hammer that came down to close out the game and a much-needed win for the slumping Stanford team was junior Erik Davis, who threw four scoreless innings of one-hit ball. Arizona ranks second in the Pac-10 in batting average, slugging percentage and on-base percentage, which made the performance even more impressive.
Davis struck out three, but he also walked three. Two of those walks and the one hit allowed by Davis all came in the top of the ninth inning, which loaded the bases and supplied high drama. The last-place Cardinal suddenly saw the go-ahead Arizona run at the plate and the possibility of their 6-3 lead and first Pac-10 win vanishing. Davis induced a ground ball to the shortstop, which was turned for a game-ending double play.
The junior righthander, who has a 0-0 record without any decisions this year, earned his first save of the 2007 season. To do that, head coach Mark Marquess had to keep Davis in the game, which was not an obvious decision as things started to unravel a little in the ninth inning. After already getting three-plus innings of relief, the Stanford skipper could have turned to the bullpen.
"That's exactly what I'm thinking," Marquess admits. "But my thought was that he has better stuff than anybody I have in the bullpen."
"He has pitched well for us the last couple times that he has pitches," the coach continues. "He pitched well in the UCLA series - he's the one guy who did pitch well. He pitched well at Arizona State, though he did get hit a little bit. He has a good fastball and good stuff. That's the longest he has thrown this year, the four innings, and he was a little shaky at the end. But he has a good arm and he has become a big force. That was good to see."
"When I'm doing well, I'm throwing both my fastball and my change-up for strikes. I've been able to do that lately," Davis describes. "I was throwing pretty hard [versus Arizona], which was good. I was able to locate my change-up really well."
"I think that even though I was only throwing two pitches, I was able to keep them off balance and work ahead in the count, which is something that our team as a whole hasn't been doing very well this year," he adds. "We're working behind in the count a lot, which doesn't create very much anxiety for the hitters. When you work ahead in the count, it makes their job a lot harder. I think we sometimes forget that hitting is a really hard thing to do. You have to try to make everything to our advantage. When we get behind in the count, that just makes it easier on the hitters. That's a big reason we have not been successful as a staff this season."
Stanford has the worst ERA in the conference (6.04), while also giving up the most walks (3.7) and hits (11.4) per nine innings, while recording the fewest strikeouts (6.4). There are some individually gifted pitchers on the Stanford staff. There is unquestioned talent when looking at Davis, Nolan Gallagher, Jeffrey Inman, Jeremy Bleich, Max Fearnow, Tom Stilson and others.
There is a gap this season, in almost all instances, between the talent these throwers possess and the performances they are putting together on the mound. Davis pinpoints the fact that too many Cardinal pitchers are working behind in counts, which comes from a failure of confidence and focus.
"I think everybody on this team has the ability to do that, but we're putting a lot of pressure on ourselves," he opines. "A lot of us have been struggling - offensively, defensively and pitching. If we feel like we have to go out there and give up zero runs because we don't know if our hitters are going to score, that's not the right attitude to take. It shows because people are picking corners and painting the ball. When you end up doing that, you're stuff is not going to be as good, and you're not going to be as successful. That's the same thing for the hitters. If they're worried that the pitchers are going to give up 10 runs, they're out there trying to press and trying to hit a home run every time."
"I think a lot of people on this team are very mentally tough. It's just that some of them don't have the confidence right now that goes along with it," Davis continues. "I've never had a doubt in my confidence, just because that's who I am. I can go give up five runs and still think I should pitch the next day. Other people, it takes a little bit longer to get through things. Everybody on this team is working really hard right now. I don't think there's a single person on this team who is playing as well as they should and/or that they could. If our whole team can just start playing well, then our confidence will start going up. We'll start playing a lot better as a team."
"We have to realize - and this is where we did a good job on Sunday - that pitchers will pick up the hitters and hitters will pick up the pitchers," Davis says. "I think Sunday was a team win, and it showed that this team is not as bad as we have been playing. But we need to put it together a lot more often than we have been."
Tuesday was a step backward for Stanford, as they dropped a 6-3 non-conference game to Santa Clara and ended their brief "winning streak" at one game. The Cardinal can at least claim an active Pac-10 streak of winning, which will be put on the line today and throughout the weekend in a three-game series at Cal. Stanford swept the Bears in non-conference action in early March, but the Cardinal have been sliding mercilessly since.
"This weekend we're playing a big series against a Pac-10 rival, and we're building off Sunday's success. Hopefully, we'll put it together a lot more," says Davis. "We have to realize that things will go wrong this weekend at some point, and we have to decide to either give up or work harder and overcome. I think that our team is getting closer and closer to overcoming, whereas earlier in the season we would just give up when something bad happen."
Stanford and Mark Marquess have announced Bleich as today's starter, and Inman will start on Saturday. The Sunday starting slot has been left open, and it is a possibility that Davis could take that role. He has yet to start this season, with all 10 of his appearances in relief. Twice in recent weeks, however, Davis has thrown multiple innings of work with great success. As heralded as his four innings to close the Arizona game was on the Cardinal campus, Davis' best performance came two weeks earlier at Sunken Diamond versus UCLA. He threw three complete innings of no-hit ball, striking out five Bruins against a single walk.
"I think that was my best outing, but it wasn't as big of a situation so I don't think it really meant as much to the whole team," Davis offers. "It definitely gave me some more confidence. I always had the confidence that I could do well, but that helped give me the confidence that my coaches were starting to see me do better, too."
Marquess and pitching coach Tom Kunis are indeed increasing their confidence in Davis, who has already thrown an inning-plus of work in five of Stanford's nine Pac-10 games, after just 4 1/3 total innings pitched in the Cardinal's combined non-conference action of February and March.
Davis should figure prominently this weekend in the series at Berkeley, but it remains an open question of where and how he can be best used.
"I've talked to Coach Kunis and Coach Marquess, and because they think I'm such a versatile pitcher, I'm probably going to be in the bullpen for the first two games. If I don't pitch very much, I might start on Sunday," Davis explains. "That being said, they're not going to hesitate to bring me in on Friday if I need to preserve a lead, or on Saturday. Right now, we're trying to win every game we can, and as far as I'm concerned, I'm ready to do anything that is needed to be done to help us win as many games as we can. Whether they need me to pitch an inning or two on Friday and Saturday or pitch seven or eight innings on Sunday, I'm ready to do anything they need me to do."
Stanford is struggling to find good starting pitching these days, consistently trailing in the early innings of games. It might seem logical to pencil Davis in the Sunday starter's role, given both the team need and his baseball career as a starter. But he sees the situation a little differently.
"I started throughout high school. I started in summer ball. I started two years on the USA team," Davis begins. "With that being said, I closed last year and closed on Sunday, and I really like doing that. I like having the feeling that I'm in control of the game for the last two innings."
"I like to think of myself of one of, if not the most mentally tough people on our team," he says. "I know that type of person has to be in a closer's role, so I welcome that challenge every time it needs to be done. I like starting, but as far as what this team needs right now, I need to be closing because I can bring the intensity and the mental toughness to the closer's role."
If Erik Davis did not have tremendous mental toughness, he probably would not be pitching at all this year. He met with the ultimate pitcher's nightmare last summer in the Cape Code League on June 18. Just seven days after Stanford's season-ending loss in the Super Regionals of the NCAA Tournament at Oregon State, and just five days after his last final exam of the spring quarter, Davis was on the mound for the Brewster Whitecaps for his his second outing of the summer season. A line drive hit by Ryan Flaherty of the Hyannis Mets crashed into his face, just below his right eye. Davis crumpled to the ground with blood flowing profusely.
He was flown to a Boston hospital and the next morning had the first of two surgeries. The second surgery took place on June 30 and reconstructed the bones surrounding his eye. Davis initially could not see out of his right eye, and there was question of how well - if at all - he would see again. The prognosis for the Mountain View (Calif.) man improved dramatically when he was told his only limitation following the reconstruction surgery: wait six weeks before any activity that could risk a hit to his face.
Davis' injury happened so soon during the summer that his surgeries and recovery gave him a chance to throw once in August. He hitched his wagon temporarily with the Maxim Yankees, an independent West Coast summer circuit team, with whom Davis played during the summer of 2005. The final series of the 2006 summer season took the Yankees to the Reno Astros.
In his August 18 triumphant return to the mound, two months to the date after his horrific injury, Davis threw 3.0 innings in Reno, giving up no hits and no runs. The righthander struck out two and walked a pair.
"I really just wanted to do that to prove to myself and prove to everybody else that I was kind of over it and ready to move on," Davis says. "I was ready to move on pretty much the day after it happened, but I obviously couldn't move on yet physically. But mentally, I was ready to move on the day after it happened just because I knew it was a random accident. I wasn't worried about it happening again."
Despite not having thrown to live batting in two months, Davis had surprisingly few physical shortcomings in his return.
"Mostly it was mental," he explains. "The first batter I faced, I walked on four pitches. I think I was just a little bit nervous. But I settled down and ended up doing really well. I was a little bit wild because I had only thrown one bullpen before I went to pitch."
"After I pitched, I kept working out like I normally would to get ready for [Stanford] fall ball," Davis says. "I wanted to make sure as soon as I set foot back on campus, I was just like everybody else - just normal. I didn't want to give the coaches any excuses, or myself any excuse to not do as well as I know I can do."
It would not be an excuse at all if Davis had moments of weakness on the mound, concerned about the next line drive that barrel toward his head. Before reaching his 20th birthday, he already endured the worst nightmare of a pitcher. And that came in a wooden bat league. Back at Stanford, Davis faces aluminum bats every time he takes the mound.
Somehow, the the junior has been able to throw without these fears haunting him.
"To be honest with you, I haven't really thought about it at all," Davis describes. It's just something that I have put in the back of my mind. It happens very rarely, and it by chance it happened to me. Is it going to happen to me again? Probably not, but there's nothing I can do to stop it if it did. By worrying about it, that's just going to hamper my performance."
By not worrying about the next line drive, and instead working ahead in counts against opposing hitters, Davis is rounding into fine form at the midpoint of this season. To score a series win this weekend at Cal, it will undoubtedly take another performance from the Stanford junior like what he threw against Arizona and UCLA. Stay tuned to TheBootleg.com for updates throughout the weekend on Davis and the Cardinal in their three-get set at Evans Diamond.
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