Dedication drives Davis on long path to 50th homer
He stood upright, shifted his weight toward his back foot, pumped his hands and swung violently, with the brute force provided by his chiseled, 6-foot-3, 230-pound frame.
The ball cleared the left-center-field wall at Toronto's Rogers Centre, and there it was for Chris Davis on Friday, a seminal moment in the season of his life.
Were the pure display of power not one of sports' magnetizing moments, maybe we wouldn't or couldn't fully appreciate the attention to detail, the fierce dedication that went into shaping that swing. But we love long balls and we like round numbers, so Davis' 50th home run gets prominent placement on the 2013 postcard.
And the strange but rewarding path he took to get here is what makes it all the better.
With that blast off the Blue Jays' Steve Delabar in the eighth inning, the man they call "Crush" not only gave the O's the go-ahead run in what turned out to be a 5-3 win but also equaled the franchise's single-season record set by Brady Anderson in 1996, a record that seems sure to be broken by the time the curtain closes on the current campaign.
But the intrigue over what Davis has accomplished here extends well beyond the confines of the O's record book. Because in the age of drug testing, of specialized bullpens and ample high-velocity arms, of intense video study and spray charts and hot and cold zones, of high strikeouts and low batting averages and a steady stream of 2-1 games, the 50-homer hitter is an increasingly captivating commodity.
That Davis, the 27th member of the 50-homer club, has become one qualifies as a surprise, as was the case when Jose Bautista, the last player to reach the mark, did it in 2010 (also at Rogers Centre, come to think of it). Then again, we didn't have full access or understanding of the competitive fire, the hunger to adjust and adapt and the untapped talent that rested within Davis and Bautista, both of whom have faced unfair and undue scrutiny of their accomplishments from the intellectually lazy.
For Davis, that scrutiny will persist, undoubtedly. The Big 50 only refreshes his prominent spot on the national radar and therefore only regurgitates the discourse over whether his coming-of-age is on the up-and-up.
This power, though, is far from a recent addition to the Davis repertoire, as anybody who saw him at Longview (Texas) High School or Navarro Junior College or in the midst of those promisingly productive stints in the Rangers' Minor League system can attest. Davis hails from a football-obsessed slice of America known as East Texas, but the home runs he used to send soaring over the stadium lights are still the stuff of local legend, and the legend continued to grow in places like Bakersfield, Calif., and Frisco, Texas, where Davis' power propelled him upward on the Rangers' top prospect list.
It's the consistency with which that power now presents itself that is the real revelation here.
Davis, then 22, burst onto the big league scene with 17 homers in 80 games in 2008, and it seemed a star was born. But the star fizzled quickly under the weight of this game of adjustments. His 21 homers in '09 were accompanied and overmatched by his 35.8 percent strikeout rate. His average plummeted, and it reached rock bottom in an unfulfilling 45-game stint in 2010, when Davis hit just .192 with one homer and 40 strikeouts in 120 at-bats.
If there is regret on the part of the Rangers over the player Davis has become in the wake of the 2011 trade that sent him to Baltimore, it ought not be directed at the way Davis was employed, for he was given every opportunity to assert himself at the big league level. Davis looked like a player doomed to be stuck in the baseball purgatory of too good for Triple-A and too limited for the bigs.
Then again, maybe Davis had to reach that point to ascend to this one. Maybe Crush Davis couldn't have existed without the threat of becoming Crash Davis. Maybe the unsuccessful stance and swing path were necessary learning experiences leading Davis to the successful ones.
Whatever the case, what we know is that Davis, through much trial and error, found a routine and an approach that worked for him. And then he repeated it and repeated it and repeated it again.
We saw the first signs of his surge last season, when his 33 homers, including 10 in the final month, helped propel the O's to a Wild Card berth. And this season, he's proven to be the real deal, the only man standing between Miguel Cabrera and his second consecutive Triple Crown.
Some credit here goes to Robinson Cano, who came across Davis in winter ball after the 2010 season and encouraged him to focus on his strengths (quite literally) and not be so caught up in contact, a conversation Davis has cited as his epiphany. Credit also goes to Andy MacPhail, who made the savvy swap with the Rangers in his final months with the Orioles, recognizing that a guy with a 1.229 OPS in Triple-A was worth targeting in trade talks with Texas that revolved around Koji Uehara and Tommy Hunter.
Mostly, though, credit goes to Davis himself. For following his inherent belief in his abilities into the video room, into the batting cage and into the batter's box, where, on Friday night, he swung big, swung hard and hit the Big 50.