Erik Davis joins the Nationals bullpen

nationals90_image_thumbnailFor 20 minutes on the night of May 20, Erik Davis thought he was going to the major leagues. Nationals officials told Davis, a reliever at Class AAA Syracuse, to prepare for his trip to San Francisco. He had grown up there, and now he had been told he would pull on a big league uniform for the first time in his hometown.

And then he got a second call. The Nationals’ needs had changed when they learned Ryan Mattheus had broken his hand punching a locker. He was staying in the minors.

“That was kind of tough,” Davis said Saturday evening. “But it’s all worth it now.”

Davis, 26, spoke leaning against a wall just outside the Nationals’ clubhouse, his first day in the majors. In need of a reliever after Craig Stammen pitched four innings Friday night, the Nationals called up Davis to take Bryce Harper’s roster spot. Davis, a right-hander with a 3.00 ERA and 27 strikeouts in 24 innings for the Chiefs, did not mind the wait.

“I understand that’s part of the game,” Davis said. “I’m certainly not the first or last person that’s going to happen to. Just to be in the discussion, that makes me very proud because a couple years ago I’m sure I was very, very low on the Nationals’ thoughts. I’m just glad to be able to be here.”

The Nationals acquired Davis at the end of spring training in 2011 when they sent utility infielder Alberto Gonzalez to the San Diego Padres. They sent Davis to Class AA Harrisburg. He pitched there with a torn ligament in his knee. “That was really the first time I’ve ever experienced failure on a consistent basis in baseball,” Davis said. “I didn’t really handle it the best way, and just being in a new organization was tough.”

After Davis went 5-12 with a 5.30 ERA in 2011, the Nationals shipped him to the bullpen and started him at Class AA Harrisburg again. He struck out 69 hitters in 64 1/3 innings as he earned a promotion to Syracuse. His velocity improved, and change-up baffled batters.

“I think the biggest change he had was his mind-set,” Nationals director of player development Doug Harris said. “He had a lot of success as a starter prior to joining us at the lower levels. When he got to the AA level, his approach that he had a starter probably wasn’t conducive to long-term success. As a reliever, he’s been much more aggressive, been on the attack a little more than he was as a starter.”

As a reliever, Davis said he models himself after Tyler Clippard, a reliever who broke the mold. Like Clippard, he relies on a fastball-changeup mix that hitters rarely see from relievers. “I’m just trying to carve my own niche,” Davis said.

At Syracuse, Davis performed in many roles, from coming on in the middle of an inning with runners on base to pitching multiple innings. He hasn’t pitched in four days, so he said he could come in whenever and however the Nationals need him.

Friday night, the Chiefs’ game crawled into extra innings. Davis remained in the bullpen even as a position player came down to the bullpen to warm up. He started to realize something was going, that he may have another call to the big leagues.

“These past two weeks I’ve had a couple close calls with getting called up,” Davis said. “I was kind of expecting it or not expecting it, so it’s just a dream come true.”

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