PAWTUCKET ‚ÄĒ Will Middlebrooks was sitting at his locker stall in the PawSox clubhouse Monday afternoon when Chili Davis dropped by. Naturally the discussion between the prized newcomer and the first-year hitting coach focused on the rough Triple-A start Middlebrooks had gotten off to, one that included six strikeouts and 11 hitless at-bats.
Whatever words of reassurance Davis bestowed upon Middlebrooks seemed to click as the young third baseman went out and collected his first two hits in a PawSox uniform.
What exactly did Davis say to Middlebrooks?
‚ÄúHe emphasized, ‚ÄėLook, you‚Äôre a good hitter. Just trust yourself and go out and play the game you know how and do what got you here,‚Äô‚ÄĚ Middlebrooks was saying Tuesday afternoon. ‚ÄúThat‚Äôs one of the main reasons why Chili is so good at what he does. He gets to know guys on a personal level and he‚Äôs close to everyone.‚ÄĚ
Perhaps that‚Äôs all you need to know regarding the impact Davis has registered in first season as Pawtucket‚Äôs hitting coach. The 50-year-old may have the wisdom and guile that comes with playing 19 seasons in the big leagues, yet it‚Äôs his attention to the little things ‚Äď one will often find Davis standing behind the cage during batting practice once his turn to throw a round is through ‚Äď that has allowed him to go beyond the normal mechanical corrections a hitter may seek.
‚ÄúThe biggest thing is gaining a hitter‚Äôs trust,‚ÄĚ is the No. 1 lesson Davis has learned in what has been a season chock full of new experiences and endeavors. ‚ÄúSometimes you‚Äôve got to catch them at the right time and sometimes you‚Äôve got to let them come to you, which you might not be prepared for.
‚ÄúIf you try to force the issue, you lose them. I learned that his year. Sometimes you get as frustrated as they are with the results and the at-bats and everything else,‚ÄĚ Davis went on. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs about catching them when they‚Äôre more receptive to suggestions.‚ÄĚ
Davis noted that the real work could begin once the Pawtucket hitters started worrying less about their own numbers. The PawSox entered Tuesday in a three-way tie for last place in the International League in hitting (.253), though Pawtucket ranks in the middle of the pack or higher in just about every other key offensive category.
‚ÄúThe beauty of these guys is that earlier in the year, there was a lot of individuality here, but somehow they jelled as a team and started playing team baseball,‚ÄĚ noted Davis, a three-time World Series champion. ‚ÄúWith the pitching staff we have, they‚Äôve gone out and they‚Äôve learned how to win games and score the runs and battle back from games that we should have probably lost. That‚Äôs due to guys not wasting at-bats in the latter innings. They put pressure on the pitchers by drawing walks or getting key hits.‚ÄĚ
One such sequence in which Davis‚Äô tutelage is paying off in the form of positive results occurred in the fifth inning of Pawtucket‚Äôs 3-2 win Monday night. Jose Iglesias, the owner of 17 walks coming in, worked a free pass that brought up Che-Hsuan Lin, owner of one home run on the season.
What does Lin do? The centerfielder blasts a two-run shot that lands in the flowerbed located in left-center. After the game manager Arnie Beyeler mentioned that Davis had been working with Lin to swing with more aggression through the zone.
‚ÄúWith Iggy (Iglesias) a walk like that is huge. We were talking the other day at the cage and he was talking about hitting line drives and how guys were catching them,‚ÄĚ said Davis. ‚ÄúI told him that I like it when he hits the ball hard, but what I like even more is that he‚Äôs giving the team at-bats now. He‚Äôs not swinging at the first pitch. He‚Äôs taking pitches, working the count and drawing walks. Instead of going 1-for-4, he might be 0-for-2 with two walks, and if he‚Äôs scoring a run from one of those walks, he‚Äôs helping the team.
As far as Lin goes, ‚Äúthe organization wants to see the extra base hits. Not necessarily the home runs, but he‚Äôs made a nice adjustment recently that‚Äôs resulted in three extra bases the past few days. When he came here from Double A, he was getting hits, so it‚Äôs virtually impossible to tweak a guy when he‚Äôs in that position. You kind of let him continue doing what he‚Äôs doing although you know at some point [opposing pitchers] are going to figure him out, which is when the adjustment comes.‚ÄĚ
Davis feels the time he‚Äôs spent with catcher Luis Exposito stretches beyond hard-core statistics. In fact Davis was singing the praises of a first-year Triple-A hitter who has raised his average over 30 points since late May.
‚ÄúI think Exposito has a much better approach at the plate. The hands are working much better, but earlier in the year I didn‚Äôt know where his head was,‚ÄĚ Davis said. ‚ÄúWe were both trying to gain trust in each other, but he‚Äôs come a long way. It will be interesting if I have a chance next year to be with him starting in spring training and try to get him better prepared to start the season.
‚ÄúThe year has been a big time learning year for me. I‚Äôve never done this before on this level or at this capacity, but hopefully I‚Äôll have a chance to continue learning and throwing what I learn out there.‚ÄĚ
Concerning his future with the Red Sox organization, Davis says, ‚ÄúI don‚Äôt know where this game is going to take me. I got back into it because this is the environment I‚Äôm used to. We‚Äôll see what happens at the end of the season. Whether they‚Äôll ask me back, I don‚Äôt know that. I‚Äôm not trying to count on anything, but if I have to be back [in Pawtucket] with these guys next year, I definitely won‚Äôt be disappointed.‚ÄĚ