BALTIMORE – Standing at first base as Jose Bautista arrived after taking yet another base on balls Saturday night, Chris Davis turned to his fellow all-star and commiserated for a moment. “Man, was that your third walk of the game?” he asked. “You’ve just got to be patient,” Bautista answered.
“That’s something you’ve got to remember,” says Davis, the reigning home run champion who went 11 games and 42 at-bats before connecting for his first homer of 2014 on Sunday. “You can’t go up there and win the game with one swing every at-bat, so you’ve got to remain patient and take what they give you.”
The problem for the Baltimore Orioles cleanup hitter is that much like the Toronto Blue Jays slugger, opposing pitchers have been giving him precious little so far this season. In 2012 he established himself as a hitter to be feared when he ripped 33 home runs with an .827 OPS, but he really moved into elite territory last season, when he led the majors with 53 home runs, 138 RBIs and was second to Miguel Cabrera with an 1.004 OPS.
The Orioles, a dark-horse pick in some corners to win the American League East, need him to provide similar production in 2014, but he’s not sneaking up on opponents anymore. For a while last year, pitchers would regularly challenge him as if they wanted him to prove that his 2012 breakout was legit.
As he proceeded to pound offering after offering, teams quickly realized that was a pretty dumb idea, and suddenly the way he is pitched has shifted dramatically.
"Yeah, and it's not just this year," Davis says. "People I think started to game-plan more towards me, which is to be expected. The good thing about it is there are guys who have done it before that you can look at and see what they've gone through and pick their brains. I talked to Jose a little bit, talked to Brady Anderson about what he went through after he had his big year.
"It's funny because everyone wants to know how do you do it again, and as a player last year, I wasn't going out trying to hit 53 home runs, it's just everything I hit seemed to leave the park. I'm starting to feel a little bit better now, I'm starting to get my timing back."
No. 1 of the season, a mammoth blast to centre field off Esmil Rogers during garbage time in an 11-3 loss to the Blue Jays, certainly suggests that, but it's also worth noting that the game situation made it more likely for him to be challenged.
To that point the Blue Jays had contained him well, although wind and cold air probably conspired to steal at least one home run from him Friday night. Fed a steady diet of off-speed pitches and borderline fastballs, he finished the three-game set 2-for-10 with a pair of walks, helping out at times by chasing.
Sluggers like Davis can sometimes struggle to contain their aggressiveness and avoid expanding the zone out of desperation to make things happen, a trap he's wary of falling into.
"The thing about power – and this is the battle I face every year in spring training – is you work hard in the off-season, you do everything you can to prepare, but once the games start you want to go get it, you want to see if it's still there, you want to test it again, I guess," he says. "A lot of times that can get you out of rhythm. That's kind of what's happened with me, there have been times I've had good pitches to hit and just missed them, and I'm starting to think now I've got to get this one and expand my zone. That's all part of it."
Long vulnerable to the strikeout, Davis helped compensate for all his swings and misses (199 Ks last year) with a career-high 72 walks last year. While pitchers often made it easy for him to leave the bat on his shoulder, a key area of growth came in not trying to force things, being willing to pass the baton.
"You go up there looking for your pitch," he explains, "and if you don't get it, you've got confidence in the guys behind you to pick you up. That's the beautiful thing about this team, we have so many guys who can really get the job done."
Still, regardless of the depth around him, it was Davis who really pushed the Orioles offence to another level last season. The question of whether he can again be force he was in 2013, or something closer to what he was in 2012, or something in between will follow him around all year.
"It was really just consistency of being in the lineup every day and making sure I was ready to play every day," Davis says of what helped him take such a major step forward. "The last month of the season was really a grind because in this division you can't take any games off, and we were trying to get into the post-season. I was really proud of the way I handled things, I had a lot of firsts, first all-star game, first all-star derby, those are things I always wanted and worked hard for, so it was nice to get into."
FREE-AGENCY SPAT: The stunted market for Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales took a dramatic turn Friday when the players' union issued a statement demanding an investigation into the conduct of team executives, while Major League Baseball replied by dismissing the issue.
The trigger for the exchange was a recent report by ESPN's Buster Olney in which a handful of baseball officials anonymously weighed in on the present value of Drew and Morales. Such public speculation is prohibited by the collective bargaining agreement.
"I am angered that numerous, anonymous baseball executives have blatantly and intentionally violated our collective bargaining agreement by offering to ESPN comments about the free agent values of Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales," union executive director Tony Clark said in his statement. "These statements undermine the free agent rights of the players and depress their market value. Today, I have called upon the commissioner's office to investigate immediately and thoroughly the sources of these statements and to take appropriate action to enforce our agreement."
Rob Manfred, baseball's chief operating officer widely considered a leading candidate to replace Bud Selig as commissioner, dismissed the notion of the comments doing any damage to Drew and Morales.
"Over the years, I have learned that it is a waste of time to pay attention to anonymous quotes which may or may not be genuine," he said. "Given that the regular season is well under way, it is hard to imagine that anonymous comments would have any effect whatsoever on the market for any individual player. There are many other factors that better explain the current situation faced by a very small number of free agents."
Drew and Morales are both free agents with draft-pick compensation attached to them after rejecting qualifying offers of $14.1 million from their former teams.
RAYS GET STUNG: The pitching depth of the Tampa Bay Rays is being sorely tested right now as Alex Cobb this weekend joined fellow starters Matt Moore and Jeremy Hellickson on the disabled list.
Cobb suffered an oblique strain and is likely to miss 4-to-6 weeks. Moore is awaiting word on the severity of his elbow injury, while Hellickson is recovering from a cleanup surgery in his elbow and isn't expected back until June.
Erik Bedard of Navan, Ont., will take over from Cobb in a rotation that also includes subs Jake Odorizzi and Cesar Ramos plus mainstays David Price and Chris Archer.
SUNSHINE STATE: The Canadian junior national team is in Florida for its annual spring camp which includes an eight-game exhibition schedule against the extended spring training squads of various big-league clubs.
Gareth Morgan of Toronto, a hulking outfielder who could be the first Canadian picked in the 2014 draft, is on the roster along with outfielder Demi Orimoloye of Orleans, Ont., and first baseman Josh Naylor of Mississauga, Ont., two of the best Canuck talents eligible for 2015.
The junior national team is preparing for September's world junior qualification tournament in Lagos de Moreno, Mexico.