ST. PETERSBURG — Right-hander Wade Davis has had his share of success as a starting pitcher, including a complete game and a postseason win.
But manager Joe Maddon said Davis has never been as dominant as he was Thursday in New York, when he struck out four of the six Yankees he faced in a perfect two-inning relief stint.
"That was as good as you're going to see a relief pitcher throw," Maddon said. "I don't care if you're a closer, setup guy, whatever — that was outstanding. Anybody that comes out like he did in Yankee Stadium against that part of the lineup and throw like that, can pitch anytime, anywhere."
Davis, 26, a starter his whole career, has thrived in his first full season in the bullpen, boasting a 2.20 ERA while working into more high-leverage moments. A big reason is how quickly Davis accepted his new role, an unselfish move that helps the team and could make him more valuable — and a better starter — in the future.
"I didn't have any trouble with it," Davis said. "Yes, starting is what I want to do, I want to excel as much as I can in anything I do. But I'm not hurt about it, I'm not frustrated about it. I'm still pitching in the big leagues. I still want to be part of a team that's going to win. It was easy for me for some reason."
Davis said what helped ease the transition was a 30-minute conversation with senior adviser Don Zimmer the first week of spring training, long before his battle with Jeff Niemann for the fifth starter spot was dissected and determined. Zimmer told him about a position player he had with the Cubs who wanted to be starting shortstop, and the former manager told him that by being a utility player, he could add five years onto his career.
"It really helped me a lot," Davis said. "It was like, 'Hey, you may not be in the starting rotation this year, or you may, but if you're not you have to be able to just erase everything that you think you are, and accept what you're doing and get your mind and ego out of everything, and eventually you'll have success.'
"If I had a different mentality, I may not even be here anymore."
Maddon assured Davis, a fixture in the rotation the previous two seasons, that they still envision him as a starter, but by moving to the bullpen he could make the team better. Davis had to make adjustments, including lessening the intensity of workouts so his arm can be ready to roll once he comes into the game.
Davis' body is responding better, to where he has been able to pitch on back-to-back days twice and go multiple innings 11 times. He can dial up his velocity to the mid 90s off the bat and execute, holding hitters to a .167 average in pitches 1-25, an improvement from when he was an admittedly slow starter.
He has always loved the pressure-packed moments, and Rays broadcaster Brian Anderson, a former pitcher, said Davis has that mound presence that you need in the bullpen, seeming "unflappable." Anderson singled out Davis' bases-loaded, 11-pitch battle with Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus April 27, when he fired eight straight fastballs before retiring him on a flyout to help seal an 8-4 win.
"That," Anderson says, "was very impressive."
Maddon said the Rays thought all along that Davis could be "that kind of force" as a reliever, with a very good curveball, both in velocity and command, to go with his downhill four-seam fastball.
"You're seeing it right now," Maddon said.
Davis said there are still some ups and downs, but he has leaned on other members of the bullpen, several of whom — including Jake McGee and J.P. Howell — are former starters, too. Though righty Burke Badenhop said Davis is more reserved than some of the other relievers, he joked "he fits right in with the monkeys we've got running around." And Badenhop said Davis' "selfless attitude" is a "breath of fresh air."
"A lot of guys would have been maybe a little more stubborn," Badenhop said. "And while I'm sure he still feels like he's a starter, that hasn't been the feel anybody gets out in the bullpen. He's doing his best to fit in and help us win, and has done an awesome job so far."
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.