ST. PETERSBURG -- Talk about the opposite of a dilemma. How about the choice Joe Maddon faced this season: Go with the lefty or the righty?
When that question arose, the Rays manager had to be downright giddy, because he couldn't lose with either selection: "Uh, Jake McGee or Wade Davis, let's see ..."
If Maddon tapped his left arm, McGee appeared on the mound, producing nothing but gas and resulting in the chant by Rays fans, "Left-right! Left-right" while an opposing player walked back to the dugout following a strikeout.
Going with the righty meant Davis, and, again: "Left-right! Left-right!"
The pair of relievers was as nasty as any in baseball this season and offered promise for the Rays' future.
McGee finished 5-2 with a 1.95 ERA and Davis went 3-0 with a 2.43 ERA. McGee had a WHIP of 0.80 and opposing hitters hit just .168 against him, while Davis had a 1.09 WHIP and a .189 average against him. In the pair's final 10 appearances of the season, they combined to strike out 34 in 20 2/3 innings while walking just six. In short, they were dominating.
Ironically, neither had been initially cast as a reliever after each was selected in the June 2004 Draft, and one of them might not stay in the role.
For much of McGee's Minor League career he was a starter. Davis did the same, breaking into the Major Leagues as a starter and remaining there until this season. Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey stressed that the conversion from starter to reliever is not an easy one to make.
"I think it was a little easier for McGee, because I think we saw Jake McGee as more of a relief pitcher the whole entire time," Hickey said. "And I think we saw Wade Davis as a starting pitcher, and certainly we still do see Wade Davis as a starting pitcher.
"I think for Jake the transition was probably a little bit easier and it has also probably been a little easier transition to make when you have some success right away, which Jake did. Wade was a very successful starter too. It wasn't like we took some ineffective starter and moved him to the bullpen hoping to salvage his career. It was just a case of not enough room at the end at the time."
McGee has never fully developed more than two pitches. A fastball and a slider are his bread and butter and he's pretty much shelved the change.
"That's one of the reasons he was projected to be a bullpen guy," Hickey said. "His breaking ball never really came along. His changeup never really developed like you would like a left-handed starter. I think if he had continued down a starter's path, he could have had that and he could have been a productive starter. But, he's a rare commodity coming out of the bullpen.
"There aren't too many guys like him, someone who comes out of the bullpen, where they just come and feed you a pretty steady diet of fastballs. You know what's coming and you can't do much with it. And that's pretty much the definition of a dominant pitch right there, when a hitter and everybody else in the ballpark knows what's coming and he's still unable to do anything with it. And that's what Jake has with his fastball."
McGee noted that he never heard anything about plans for him to become a reliever until after returning from Tommy John surgery in 2009. Looking back at what he felt was the biggest obstacle he had to make to move to the bullpen, he pointed to "realizing the situation of the game."
"If there's a hitter up next who's more dangerous than the hitter who is up, be more careful with him, but don't pitch around him," Davis said.
McGee has shoulders that seemingly stretch from first to third base when he's standing on the mound, which casts an intimidating presence to any hitter. Now he has the confidence to match his appearance and the results just keep getting better.
"It's really cool to get to the place where I am now, coming in with runners on base," McGee said. "When I first started doing it, I was kind of nervous about it, like, 'Oh, no, I've got first and second with no outs.' Now it's like I come in, no big deal, I've done this before."
Hickey noted that McGee has what it takes to one day be a closer.
"A closer needs a dominant pitch or dominant control," Hickey said. "All the closers have either a dominant pitch or dominant control, Mariano Rivera with the cutter, [Trevor] Hoffman with the ridiculous changeup. And Jake has a dominant fastball and he has really, really good command now.
"In addition to throwing the ball by guys, he's hitting great spots also. So I think the fastball is a dominant pitch. Look at what he did in Baltimore [in the Rays' final road series against the Orioles]. He struck out seven consecutive hitters with nothing but a fastball. They all knew what was coming and he struck out every guy."
Davis spent the entire season making a series of advancements on becoming a better relief pitcher, moving stage by stage until he was able to operate like a relief pitcher and not lose any of his effectiveness.
Hickey noted that the greatest appreciation any starter could ever have for relief pitching is to experience what they go through on a daily basis in the bullpen.
"Sitting down there and watching what they go through every day and that's certainly the hardest transition from going from a very set schedule -- knowing when you're going to pitch, knowing when you're going to stretch, knowing exactly when you're going to lift weights, knowing exactly when you're going to play catch, to having no idea when you're going to pitch at all except that you know it's going to be in the seventh or eighth inning," Hickey said. "You don't know if you're going to pitch three out of four days. You might warm up five out of six days and never get in. That's certainly the hardest part and Wade had really done a tremendous job. And you see what Wade has done. Actually he's done a great job all year."
Davis lost a Spring Training battle with Jeff Niemann for the final spot in the starting rotation. A big part of Davis' success came in the way he embraced the role rather than spending the season sulking about no longer being in the rotation
"It was extremely important that he did that and he's to be commended for doing that," Hickey said. "But I honestly truly believe whoever was sent to the bullpen would have embraced the role, because they really would have known that it was what was best for the team."
Even though Davis performed well, he ended the season feeling like he still had work to do to complete the conversion. He is extremely respectful of his peers in the bullpen and what they can do.
"These guys can throw five days in a row," Davis said. "I can only go two. I still haven't got that part yet. I think the single hardest element has been able to perform every single day, going three or four days without any rest."
Davis will likely be given a chance to return to the Rays' rotation next season.
"He is what I would consider an above-average relief pitcher right now," Hickey said. "A guy you would trust at any point in the game to help you win a ballgame. He's a guy I still view as a productive solid starting pitcher down the road, too."
When Davis does return to the rotation, he feels like he will be better equipped for the job thanks to his stint in the bullpen.
"It's been a learning experience," Davis said. "And I think I'm a lot better off from going through the experience."