Zach Davies has been at his worst against the Pirates this season. Now, he’s been at his best, too.
Davies, whose 8.22 ERA entering the day was the highest in baseball (among pitchers with 20-plus innings pitched), baffled the Pirates through seven scoreless innings en route to a 3-2 win on Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field.
The low point of Davies’ season also came against the Pirates, who tagged him for seven runs in 1 2/3 innings on April 10. That began a five-start skid in which Davies pitched four or fewer innings while averaging four earned runs allowed. This time, backed by a trio of early runs, he snapped that skid in a major way in a rematch with Pittsburgh.
“The ground balls that he was getting, ahead in the count, a lot of fastballs, attacking hitters, he seemed like a totally different guy out there today,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “He was pretty impressive.”
Deploying a mix of mostly sinkers and changeups, Davies didn’t exactly fool the Pirates, who whiffed just once in 38 swings (a first-inning changeup that earned his lone strikeout). But by filling the strike zone -- 52 of his 81 pitches (64.2 percent) were strikes -- Davies coaxed plenty of early and poor contact. Only six of the 23 balls in play against him were hard-hit (i.e. 95+ mph).
And that’s how Davies works when he’s at his best. In the age of swing-and-miss, Davies is comfortable pitching to contact. Aiming for a spot that is near where a hitter wants the ball can be dangerous work, but when it’s effective, it looks something like Davies’ outing Friday.
Facing an ultra-aggressive group of hitters like the Pirates, who hit into five first-pitch outs, doesn’t hurt either.
“Reading their approach and being able to game-plan off of that,” Davies said in describing his approach. “Making sure that I don’t take a pitch off, that I’m paying attention to what’s going on in the batter’s head.”
Meanwhile, in his own head, Davies stayed “emotionally low-key,” as Ross described the right-hander before the game. Davies’ evenness was tested in the seventh inning, when he loaded the bases on two singles and a walk with none out, bringing the go-ahead run to the plate.
With a pair of weak comebackers in the ensuing at-bats -- one that he barehanded and threw home; another that produced a 1-2-3 double play -- Davies navigated his way out of the jam unscathed.
Ross said the Cubs were “a little thin” in the bullpen on Friday, which is peculiar coming out of an off-day. Closer Craig Kimbrel was unavailable, but Ross said it wasn’t injury-related, and he expects Kimbrel to be available Saturday. Given the state of the bullpen, which ultimately allowed two ninth-inning runs on Friday, and how well Davies had pitched to that point, Ross stuck with his starter.
“When you see the guy being sharp, you don’t want to start looking at their past outings too much and let it be this huge bias in their performance,” Ross said. “The game he was pitching today was much different than the ones he’s shown up to this point. Historically, he’s been more like the guy we saw today.”
Indeed, the Cubs hope the start of Davies’ 2021 season proves to be an anomaly. Last year, he had arguably the best changeup in baseball (.229 wOBA allowed, first in FanGraphs’s weighted pitch value) and a career-best 2.73 ERA in 12 starts for the Padres. And he has only pitched to an ERA above 4.00 in one prior season, his 2018 campaign with the Brewers.
Davies is only player acquired in the Yu Darvish trade who is in the Majors. His start with a new team and fan base hasn’t been stellar, but perhaps Friday’s outing is a sign of things to come.
“It takes one of those confidence-builder games that shows you that you can do it again,” Davies said.