SARASOTA, Fla. - The first three at-bats ended in strikeouts and the familiar walk back to the dugout. A fresh start for Chris Davis, the latest since signing his franchise-record contract in January 2016, already had taken on a familiar look.
A groundout made Davis 0-for-4 in two spring training games, but there was contact. And it would get much louder in the fifth inning when he drove a breaking ball from Tampa Bay’s Austin Pruitt over the center field fence and off the scoreboard in the Orioles’ 11-5 loss at Ed Smith Stadium.
The game was stopped in the bottom of the eighth as a storm hit harder than anyone on the field.
Davis’s two-run shot extended the lead to 4-1, giving the Orioles some breathing room - until the Rays’ 10-run eighth - and allowing him to exhale.
He knows that every at-bat, every pitch thrown to him, is going to come under heavy scrutiny. Comes with the territory. Comes with the $161 million deal and the issues at the plate that followed it.
“It felt really good,” said Davis, who launched a 1-2 pitch. “I felt like today was really the first day I had my legs underneath me the entire day. Coming off the last few days of that bronchitis, just getting it out of my system, felt like I was getting my strength back and getting my legs underneath me, which makes it a little bit easier.
“I felt like I saw the ball well the other day. Just a little in between on my timing, and it’s getting a little bit better each game. Obviously had a positive result my last at-bat today, so it’s a good one to end on.”
“It’s only a spring training game and it’s his second game,” said manager Brandon Hyde, “but for him to square one up like that, I’m sure that’s ... I just want to see him take good at-bats and the results will happen. To hit a two-strike breaking ball for a homer shows you how strong he is. But I just think rhythm and timing are coming and he’s seeing the ball a little bit better his last two at-bats, so that was nice to see.”
The batting practice sessions have been good, but it’s the games that count. Even the ones that technically don’t count. Or end prematurely in a downpour.
“I think they’ve been very productive, very focused and going into it with a plan of attack and we’re sticking to it,” Davis said. “Not trying to just launch balls but really work on bat path, staying through the ball, not trying to do too much with the ball, and I think it’s going to prove to help me down the stretch in spring training and into the season.”
The adjustments in Davis’ swing were laid out again today for media as he stood outside the clubhouse.
“A lot of it was just shortening up,” he said. “I felt like there were way too many at-bats last year where I was getting out and around the ball, leading to a lot of foul balls, a lot of ground balls into the shift. Just trying to get back to keeping my swing a little shorter, using all the field and not just getting pull happy.
“I know guys are going to shift me. I think we saw the first time they used six outfielders on me. I don’t even know how many guys they’ve got out there, but doing a few different things to try to shift me even more and get in my head a little bit, and I think that will play to my advantage if I let it. But the big thing for me is not trying to go out there and do too much, not feeling like I have to carry the team on my back. Just going out there trying to get a good pitch and put a good swing on it.”
Davis also is counting on the benefits of having a clean slate, the fresh sets of eyes on him that everyone keeps talking about in camp.
“I think it’s a positive, to be honest with you,” he said. “I think it’s a good chance for me to reset and kind of regroup and put, really, the last couple of years behind me and just move forward. I like what we’re trying to accomplish this year as far as the environment we’re trying to set and the type of play, the way we’re approaching the games. We’re aggressive, we’re going to make teams adjust to us instead of the other way around. I like what I’ve seen so far.”
Davis started a 3-6-1 double play to end the second inning after the Rays put runners on the corners against Mike Wright - the same type of play the Orioles practiced this morning on the Camden Yards field.
Improved defense also is a priority this spring. It can’t continue to move in the other direction.
“That’s going to be huge for us,” Davis said. “I think if you ask any guy in the infield who was here last year, it was a disappointing second half, to be sure. We just made too many careless mistakes, too many mental mistakes. I think the emphasis early in camp is to make the plays on defense, make the routine plays, field your position well and take care of the ball. That’s going to eliminate a lot of opportunities for the other team to score runs.”
Rule 5 infielder Drew Jackson played center field and was charged with an error in the Rays’ 10-run eighth inning, but he showed off a strong and accurate arm
Taylor Grover, selected in the Triple-A phase of the Rule 5 draft after video surfaced of him throwing 102 mph fastball in independent ball, stayed in the low 90s today and allowed two runs and three hits. His velocity climbs over the summer.
“I thought we had a lot of highlights,” Hyde said. “I really liked the way we played. The pitchers early in the game - Mike Wright, Rogers - I thought they really threw the ball well and attacked hitters. Things we talked about earlier in the day. Mike Wright really trusting his slider as a strike and a put-away pitch and throwing some four-seamers elevated. And Rogers with just great tempo and pitch mix and quick innings. Got us off the field.
“Chris Davis swung the bat really well and (Yusniel) Díaz continues to swing the bat well. So I thought we did a lot of really good things today.”
Wright hasn’t allowed a run in four innings - two in relief and two as a starter.
“That’s his second outing, and two innings were a really good two innings,” Hyde said. “We’re going to continue to throw him out there and continue to build him up and see how it goes. But that was awesome. It was awesome to see his command, his aggressiveness. His velo was nice. The whole thing was a really good outing.”
Note: The Orioles welcomed Diana Love as the one millionth fan to attend games at Ed Smith Stadium in 10 years. Love will receive a $5,000 shopping experience at Diamond Vault, two spring training season tickets for five years and more.
“I just want to say how excited I am to be the one millionth person to be here at Ed Smith Stadium,” said Love, a retired elementary school teacher. “I think that it represents what the Orioles have done for Sarasota, to have one million people come here. I am thrilled beyond words.”
Love and her husband, Mike, worked as elementary school teachers in Bloomington, Ind. for 32 years. The couple has owned a home in Sarasota for 16 years.