PAWTUCKET — 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?
“He emphasized, ‘Look, you’re a good hitter. Just trust yourself and go out and play the game you know how and do what got you here,’” Middlebrooks was saying Tuesday afternoon. “That’s 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’s close to everyone.”
Perhaps that’s all you need to know regarding the impact Davis has registered in first season as Pawtucket’s hitting coach. The 50-year-old may have the wisdom and guile that comes with playing 19 seasons in the big leagues, yet it’s his attention to the little things – one will often find Davis standing behind the cage during batting practice once his turn to throw a round is through – that has allowed him to go beyond the normal mechanical corrections a hitter may seek.
“The biggest thing is gaining a hitter’s trust,” is the No. 1 lesson Davis has learned in what has been a season chock full of new experiences and endeavors. “Sometimes you’ve got to catch them at the right time and sometimes you’ve got to let them come to you, which you might not be prepared for.
“If 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,” Davis went on. “It’s about catching them when they’re more receptive to suggestions.”
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.
“The 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,” noted Davis, a three-time World Series champion. “With the pitching staff we have, they’ve gone out and they’ve learned how to win games and score the runs and battle back from games that we should have probably lost. That’s due to guys not wasting at-bats in the latter innings. They put pressure on the pitchers by drawing walks or getting key hits.”
One such sequence in which Davis’ tutelage is paying off in the form of positive results occurred in the fifth inning of Pawtucket’s 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.
“With 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,” said Davis. “I told him that I like it when he hits the ball hard, but what I like even more is that he’s giving the team at-bats now. He’s not swinging at the first pitch. He’s 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’s scoring a run from one of those walks, he’s helping the team.
As far as Lin goes, “the organization wants to see the extra base hits. Not necessarily the home runs, but he’s made a nice adjustment recently that’s resulted in three extra bases the past few days. When he came here from Double A, he was getting hits, so it’s virtually impossible to tweak a guy when he’s in that position. You kind of let him continue doing what he’s doing although you know at some point [opposing pitchers] are going to figure him out, which is when the adjustment comes.”
Davis feels the time he’s 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.
“I think Exposito has a much better approach at the plate. The hands are working much better, but earlier in the year I didn’t know where his head was,” Davis said. “We were both trying to gain trust in each other, but he’s 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.
“The year has been a big time learning year for me. I’ve never done this before on this level or at this capacity, but hopefully I’ll have a chance to continue learning and throwing what I learn out there.”
Concerning his future with the Red Sox organization, Davis says, “I don’t know where this game is going to take me. I got back into it because this is the environment I’m used to. We’ll see what happens at the end of the season. Whether they’ll ask me back, I don’t know that. I’m not trying to count on anything, but if I have to be back [in Pawtucket] with these guys next year, I definitely won’t be disappointed.”