By Todd Wills
Corsicana Daily Sun
James Russell knows something about succeeding as a pitcher at the Major League level. He’s off to a brilliant start this season for the Chicago Cubs.
So as Russell, an ex-Navarro Bulldog and current Cubs reliever, watched highlights of his junior college teammate Chris Davis throwing 92-mph fastballs and getting out Boston hitters in Baltimore’s 9-6 17-inning victory over the Red Sox on Sunday, he was somewhat surprised.
And also impressed —considering Davis was pitching for the first time since they were together at Navarro in 2006.
Davis, the Orioles’ everyday first baseman, hurled his way into the record books as the first American League position player to win a game as a pitcher since Rocky Colavito did it for the Yankees on Aug. 25, 1968.
“He’s a good athlete,” said Russell, who has an 0.87 ERA in 11 games for the Cubs this season. “I knew he could get a couple of outs. I didn’t know he would go two innings. That’s good work for a first baseman.”
Davis’ story became the talk of baseball on Monday. Davis wrote via text Monday afternoon that the Orioles media relations department had been inundated with interview requests. He was met by a media mob when he arrived in the Orioles clubhouse.
The Baltimore Sun reported that Davis looked at all of the reporters and flashed an amused smile and said, “What do you guys want to talk about?” he asked. “Hitting?”
Actually Davis’ hitting performance in the 17-inning game also helped him make history. He was the first player to go 0-for-8 at the plate and get a win in 107 years.
Hall of Famer Rube Waddell was the last to do it for the Philadelphia A’s in a 20-inning game against Cy Young in 1905.
Davis, who was traded by the Rangers partly because of his hitting struggles, is off to a great start for the Baltimore — Monday not withstanding. He is batting .288 with five home runs and 14 RBIs as the Orioles have gotten off to a surprising 19-11 start (Baltimore lost a second straight game to Davis’ former team the Rangers on Tuesday).
But his pitching has put him on the national radar this week.
Davis was forced into action when the Orioles used up all eight of their relievers. Baltimore manager Buck Showalter pointed to Davis in the 15th inning and directed him to go to the bullpen to warm up.
Showalter, the Rangers manager from 2003-06, said Davis was discussed as a pitcher and a position player prior to the Rangers drafting him out of Navarro in 2006.
“We talked in the spring,” Showalter said by text message Monday. “Have to read the bios of your players. I love media guides.”
Davis used an 83-mph changeup to strike out former Rangers teammate Jarrod Saltalamacchia to start the bottom of the 16th. The Orioles almost lost the game with two outs in the 16th, but center fielder Adam Jones and shortstop J.J. Hardy combined on a relay to get an out at home to keep the game going.
The Orioles took the lead with three runs in the top of the 17th. Davis, pitching for the win, put the first two Red Sox on base. But he struck out Boston slugger Adrian Gonzalez on three pitches and then got a double-play ball from Darnell McDonald to end the game.
“He was putting some sink and moving a couple of pitches,” Russell said. “He was bringing it in there for a guy who hasn’t thrown a lot.”
Navarro coach Whoa Dill, who was an assistant when Davis played for the Bulldogs in 2005-06, took great pleasure in watching his former player make a surprise appearance as a pitcher.
“Did you see how hard he was throwing? He was throwing 92 with a 83 changeup,” said Dill, himself a college pitcher at Navarro and UT-Arlington. “He pitched in high school. He threw more as a freshman than as a sophomore (at Navarro). He has a good arm.”
Davis played shortstop at Longview High School, and after arriving at Navarro via the University of Texas, he was used some as a closer.
But the Bulldogs had Russell and Jess Todd, who has pitched in the big leagues and is currently in Triple-A with the Memphis Redbirds of the St. Louis Cardinals organization.
“We had plenty of pitching,” Dill said, “and Chris could hit.”
Davis did have a 1-2 record with three saves in 2006. He had a 4.15 ERA and 14 strikeouts in 8 2/3 innings. He also had 18 home runs, a monster total considering the Bulldogs’ spacious ballpark at Graham Field.
“It was fun watching him hit them out,” Russell said. “But I remember if we were in a close game, he would come in when we needed him and throw 93 (mph).”
Davis told the Baltimore Sun that his phone blew up after the game. Two of those sending him text messages were Russell and Dill.
“I had about 60 texts after the game from people giving me a hard time about I should’ve been pitching the whole time, the usual stuff,” Davis told the Baltimore Sun. “But everyone told me they were proud of the way I hung in there and proud of the way this team is [playing.]”