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After humbling start, Ike breaking free

NEW YORK -- Down a back staircase at Yankee Stadium, far enough from the main clubhouse to assume he was alone, Ike Davis lost his mind on a sunny afternoon in June.

Davis began yelling, screaming and ranting in an empty hallway. He slammed down his bat. He cursed his inability to hit a baseball with any sort of authority, even during batting practice.

"I was yelling at nothing," Davis recalled. "I was just yelling."

But the troubled first baseman was not, in fact, alone that afternoon two Saturdays ago, the day his craggy season finally bottomed out. Mets bullpen catcher Dave Racaniello overheard the commotion, intercepted Davis and allowed him to vent, before throwing the club's starting first baseman another eight- or nine-dozen batting-practice pitches in an indoor cage.

"It seemed to help," Racaniello shrugged.

Davis reached base three times that night against the Yankees, marking the first of his nine consecutive games with a hit. Hindsight shows that his slump officially ended with those plate appearances, nine weeks and two days after it began.

"I had never really done that," Davis said. "It's not fun. I wouldn't wish the failure that I've had this year on anybody."

Thirteen months earlier, Davis had been busy establishing himself as one of the brightest young hopes for the Mets, a 24-year-old defensive standout on pace for more than 30 home runs -- and coming off a 19-homer season as a rookie. But he suffered a bone bruise in his left ankle in early May, missing the rest of the season amidst multiple setbacks and fear of microfracture surgery.

Though he avoided the scalpel and came to Spring Training presumably healthy, Davis again elicited concern when doctors diagnosed him with a probable case of Valley Fever. Distracting if not debilitating, the disease dominated his narrative until it became clear that something else was wrong: his swing.

Davis opened the season 0-for-18 with nine strikeouts, demonstrating none of the promise he showed early in his Major League career. Later in April he stumbled into a 1-for-23 funk, despite a brief hot streak that seemed to false-start his season. By late May, Davis was still hitting below .160.

"His confidence was beaten up pretty good," hitting coach Dave Hudgens said. "He's used to succeeding. That's kind of his deal."

And yet Davis had stumbled so much that with a roster crunch looming, it seemed plausible -- if not probable -- that the Mets might move right fielder Lucas Duda to first base and ship Davis to the Minors.

Imagine that. This is a player who dominated enough in high school to earn a scholarship to Arizona State, one of the top Division I baseball programs in the country. Who hit .329 as a college freshman. Who increased his batting average, on-base percentage and Draft stock in the desert by leaps and bounds each year. Who torched Minor League pitching during his only full season on the farm, one year after the Mets made him a first-round pick.

"If you're playing in the big leagues, you probably were pretty good in Little League and high school and college," Davis said. "The struggles on other levels are so minute compared to what you go through here."

Thankfully for Davis, so are the support systems. Over the past three months, he and Hudgens have worked on tightening up the first baseman's swing, which has always consisted of many moving parts. Davis now stands with his feet spread farther apart than usual, his head less mobile, his body carrying less forward momentum. Some of those changes are temporary, designed to help him better track the ball until he feels comfortable enough to drift back into his old stance. But no matter their permanence, the tweaks have helped.

The Mets have gone 6-5 over their last 11 games, all of them against .500 teams or better. And a mentally refreshed Davis has led the charge in many of them, batting .363 with two home runs, eight walks and 12 RBIs since that afternoon at Yankee Stadium. With David Wright easing back to earth after an otherworldly April and Daniel Murphy mired in his worst slump as a professional, Davis has done more than his part in carrying the offense.

In the process, he has reaffirmed his importance to the Mets.

"Life is life, and you're going to have ups and downs," Davis said. "It's like the old saying that whatever didn't kill you makes you stronger, I guess. Hopefully I can use that going forward to help me."

New York Mets, Ike Davis