Who's the guy with the second-most wins among starting pitchers in the country, the Saturday shutdown artist on seventh-ranked UW? Tyler Davis is a generously listed six-foot redhead with glasses studying economics who had lost 18 starts in a row until last month. As his wowed opponents are saying, “Who’s this guy?”
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
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SEATTLE – He has red hair, parted firmly on the side into a wave.
And those black-rimmed glasses, to which he pulls his game cap down low while on the mound? Those specs, without which he says he wouldn’t be able to see his catcher’s signs, fit more the economics major that he just declared than his other, dominant work at Washington.
Then there’s his stature. Or lack of. He’s um, generously listed as 6 feet tall.
Yet he’s a pitcher. One of the nation’s best right now, actually. It’s just he looks more like the second coming of Conan O’Brien – or the co-host of Wayne’s World -- than UW’s next Tim Lincecum.
No way is this the guy who is 7-1 with a tiny, 1.38 ERA.
No way is this dude in the kid-sized, No. 19 jersey any good -- let alone second in the country in wins among starting pitchers, on a team at its highest national ranking ever.
No freakin’ way!
“Yeah, I get that a lot,” Tyler Davis says. “Not only from my teammates, but from the other team.”
Yet it’s this son of an aviation systems division chief at NASA and a senior manager of finance at Cisco Systems, a guy that hadn’t won in 18 consecutive starts covering his first two Huskies seasons before last month, who is on the national midseason watch list for the hallowed Golden Spikes Award. Lincecum eight years ago is the only Husky to win college baseball’s Heisman Trophy as its player of the year.
It’s Davis – Tyler, not Erik, his bigger brother who starred for Stanford then made his major-league debut last year with the Washington Nationals –who is sparking this raucous revival of UW baseball from port-a-potties to the penthouse. The deceptive right-hander is why the nation’s seventh-ranked team is 8-1 on Saturdays and 6-0 in weekend series entering this weekend’s three games at California.
His out-of-nowhere surprise mirrors his team’s spring. The Huskies (25-7-1, 12-3 Pac-12) have won 22 of 25 games. They have soared from a middling program having a field with gravel and splintered bleachers, to being ranked 10th (out of 11 league teams) this preseason, to leading the Pac-12 midway through conference play. And they are doing it while reveling in sparkling, new Husky Ballpark, a lakeside jewel many already consider one of the best stadiums on the West Coast.
Davis loves it that no one, maybe not even those on his own team, saw this coming.
“We are not throwing afraid of making mistakes. We know our guys will make the plays if they hit the ball."
Underestimate him at your own risk.
“Oh, I absolutely love the underdog persona,” Davis said between striking out a career-high 10 Oregon Ducks with almost nothing but 80-mph fastballs and changeups and winning his sixth consecutive decision last weekend against Stanford.
“People, when I get out there on the mound, they are like ‘Who’s this guy? He can’t throw hard.’ They are right about that. But I will do everything to beat you. Yeah, I may not throw hard. But all I care about is at the end of the game that I am a better pitcher than your guy.”
WAIT … SEAN CONNERY???
It fits that the overlooked Davis is tied with Oregon State’s blue-chip, heralded ace Jace Fry for second in the Pac-12 in wins behind Oregon senior Jeff Gold (8-0). Fry was a ninth-round draft pick in 2009 out of high school. He told the Oakland Athletics, no thanks, I’ll wait to be drafted higher and go to college.
Davis? When I asked the Pac-12’s pitcher of the week about the possibility a major-league team might draft him this June, at the end of his junior season for the Huskies, he shrugged that off as a thought for a later time.
A few days later, the conference called and put him on its television network’s weekly video feature called “Statisfaction.” That was after Davis went 4-0 in March with a 0.91 ERA. He allowed three earned runs in 29 1-3 innings with 15 strikeouts and just two walks.
Again, that was after not winning any of his 18 starts before that dating to when he was a freshman in 2012.
Now that’s “Statisfaction.”
In that video (below), Davis does an impersonation of Sean Connery. He describes in a comically faux Scottish accent the famous actor and original James Bond calling a Huskies game.
“That would be phenomenal, Sir Sean Connery calling out my name,” Davis told the Pac-12 Networks host. “All my brothers sure would get a kick out of that.”
Those bros are Matt, 29 and married with two children while interested in finishing a master of business administration degree; plus Geoff and Erik.
He also has two younger sisters. Giuliana, 18, is at the University of New Mexico and wants to be an engineer. Caroline, 14, is a freshman at Mountain View High School in California. That’s where Erik went, too, and it is up the road from where Tyler graduated with a 3.5 grade-point average and was an all-state pitcher at Archbishop Mitty in San Jose.
The Davis half dozen grew up inundated with baseball. Their dad Tom was raised in Cincinnati in the 1970s as a huge fan of the “Big Red Machine” of Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and George Foster. And Tyler calls his mom Gloria “obviously a big-time sports maniac.”
Two weeks ago Erik’s follow-up season after debuting with the Nationals ended when he learned he needed Tommy John ligament-replacement surgery in his elbow. Erik Davis worked out this past winter in their native Bay Area with Huskies closer Josh Fredendall, who himself is trying to come back from Tommy John surgery.
“The night of his surgery he sent me a picture sent me a picture with his thumbs up,” Tyler said of Erik.
Erik might have been referring to his younger brother’s turnaround season.
Conference pitcher of the week. National interviews. Being among the country’s winningest starters on its seventh-ranked team. All pretty cool, overnight stuff for a small, literally overlooked No. 19 in purple and gold.
“I mean, it’s really cool,” he said. “But at the same time it’s not as important as the team doing well.”
IT’S ALL IN THE MIND
He’s halfway to getting the Huskies into their first NCAA tournament in 10 years. Those eyes behind the dark frames are focused on getting Washington to its first College World Series appearance.
So just how the heck did Davis get here?
Click to enlarge
By throwing strikes. Lots of them. Straight at opposing bats to let one of the nation’s top defenses go to work behind him.
Washington is second in the Pac-12 only to defending national champion UCLA in walks allowed. Huskies’ pitchers have walked 87 in 33 games. UW entered this week also second in the league in fielding percentage at .978, one tick behind No. 5 Oregon State (which the Huskies lead by one game atop the Pac-12). Washington is tied for 14th in the country in fielding.
“We are able as a pitching staff to do be doing so well because our defense is playing so well behind us,” Davis said. “We are not throwing afraid of making mistakes. We know our guys will make the plays if they hit the ball.
“It’s a new mindset of not trying to be perfect and strike everybody out. I’m just trying to get the pitch on the bat and have them put it in play.”
Against No. 18 Oregon two weeks ago, Davis got his career-high 10 strikeouts with no walks while allowing just three hits over a career-high 7 2-3 innings – all while throwing exactly one slider and one curveball. The rest was straight and soft – and softer.
"I may not throw hard. But all I care about is at the end of the game that I am a better pitcher than your guy.”
“I’ve thrown a lot of changeups because I’ve been able to throw it for strikes more often,” he said. “That’s something I wasn’t able to do the last couple of years.”
There are two other factors Davis sees to his – and his Huskies’ – astounding turnaround.
“Last year I wasn’t as confident in myself,” he said. “I wasn’t in the right mindset to pitch well. So I stayed here last summer and worked and worked to be more relaxed on the mound. It’s became about trusting myself.”
His main asset in rebuilding that trust: his brother Erik.
“I talked with him a lot about that,” Tyler said. “He had to make his major-league debut last year (June 2 at Atlanta) and had to get through a lot of nerves and uncomfortable times.”
That self-confidence has led to Davis’ second key: every Husky trusting each other.
“The last couple of years we had talented teams,” he said, “but we didn’t have the chemistry that we have this year.”
To think, the catalyst for that wondrous chemistry is this little redhead in glasses with a Sean Connery impersonation and a fastball that rarely gets out of the 80s.
What Davis does have: the unyielding will and newfound belief that he, like his revitalized team, can do anything.
“It’s all right. I’m having fun,” he said, again deflecting stardom as if it only gets in his way of what he and the Huskies are trying to accomplish here. “I’m happy that I’m having success. But it’s more important and it’s more exciting that our team is doing this well.
“A national championship for this school? That’s something that’s never been done here. If something like that were to happen, it’d be incredible. It’d be amazing.”
It’d likely be Davis’ doing.
Don’t say I didn’t give you a heads-up.
Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for the Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.
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