Erik Davis jogged in from the bullpen Sunday afternoon into a moment that could make a seasoned reliever nervous, let alone a 26-year-old making his major league debut. Turner Field thundered after the Braves had taken a 6-3 lead. Runners stood on second and third with one out in the sixth. Hulking rookie Evan Gattis stood at the plate.
“When you wait your life for an opportunity like that, it would be wrong to be nervous, I think,” Davis said. “That was something I’ve been waiting for 26 years. I would never forgive myself if I was going in there and not giving it everything I had.”
The Nationals did not have much to feel good about Sunday afternoon as they lost a series to the Braves and dropped below .500. But they could feel good about the debut of Davis, who escaped the jam without allowing any runs and retired all five batters he faced, striking out two. Davis silenced the Braves with aggression and a nasty change-up, a style he models after Tyler Clippard.
“First time out, he looked great,” Manager Davey Johnson said.
Johnson had chosen Henry Rodriguez over Davis in the 10th inning Saturday night with the game in the balance. The outcome Sunday, given the Nationals’ woeful offense, had essentially been decided, but Davis could still keep the Nationals within striking distance. With two men in scoring position, his outing started with Gattis.
“The infield is playing in,” Davis said. “You need a strikeout or a groundout. Out in the bullpen, [bullpen coach] Jimmy Lett was telling us, ‘Just keep the ball away from Gattis. He doesn’t like the breaking ball.’ I just went right after him like that.”
Davis pumped two strikes, a foul and a take, and fed Gattis an 0-2 curve. He grounded to third, and Ryan Zimmerman fired home to nab the runner in plenty of time. Davis pointed at Zimmerman, got the ball back and induced a grounder from Brian McCann to end the inning.
In the seventh, Davis kept rolling. He jumped ahead of Dan Uggla, 0-2, with a swinging strike at an 85-mph change-up . He eventually struck him out swinging through a high, 93-mph fastball. He ended the inning by striking out Reed Johnson, freezing him with a 78-mph curveball. In the full outing, Davis threw 15 strikes in 20 pitches.
In the dugout, he accepted high-fives and congratulations. (“I could have gone one more,” Davis said.) His parents took pictures and cheered from the stands, having flown all the way from San Francisco. Once Davis retreated to the clubhouse, he checked his phone.
“I think I have like 40 messages,” he said. “It’s pretty crazy.”