Davidson has never been to a regional, and before this season the Wildcats hadn’t posted a 20-win season since 2005. So it is very notable that Davidson is 22-10 after nine weeks, sitting alone atop the Southern Conference standings (12-3).
Davidson has won all five of its SoCon series, including home series against two of the league’s top programs in recent years, Georgia Southern and Samford. The Wildcats also finished last season with a series win against Samford, as they won three of their final four series to build momentum for this season.
Still, no one expected Davidson to compete for the SoCon title. In fact in the preseason, league coaches picked the Wildcats to finish last in the 10-team league. But Davidson has been one of the best offensive teams in a very offensive league, leading the SoCon in batting (.309, 13th in the nation) and doubles (74, 13th in the nation) while being tied for third in home runs with 33 (seventh in the nation). Eight different Wildcats have hit multiple home runs this season, led by senior outfielders Nathan Becker (nine) and Forrest Brandt (six). Davidson has a strong core of physically mature upperclassmen anchoring the lineup.
“Certainly offensively, you look up and down statistically and there is some balance there,” Davidson coach Dick Cooke said Tuesday in Durham, where his team was supposed to face Duke before the game was washed out. “I think there’s a direct correlation to the strength and conditioning piece, I think anyone would tell you that. The plan and the personnel doing that is a little different this year. I think that gives you a level of confidence as a hitter, too. (Former South Carolina coach) Ray Tanner, a close friend of mine, they were known for their epic offensive totals. He said one of their most important aspects outside of taking a lot of BP was the strength piece, because we play more confidently as an offensive team. I think there’s absolutely validity to that.”
Davidson’s leading hitter is junior DH/RHP Ryan Lowe (.361 with three homers, 10 doubles and 21 RBIs). Lowe also spent some time in the weekend rotation early this year, but he has settled in as a key bullpen piece, posting a 3.60 ERA in 25 innings on the year.
“He’s a captain as well, so he wears a lot of hats,” Cooke said. “I think he leads the charge in his off-the-field work ethic, and certainly on the field with the baseball stuff. I think he’s taken the lead in helping the rest of the team understand how valuable the strength piece is—he gets after it hard. He can run a little bit, he swings the bat. We’ve chosen not to play him positionally because he’s got some value for us off the mound. He’s developed a little bit of a slider/cutter. He came in out of high school as kind of a classic fastball/curveball guy. When he’s in a shorter role, he needs to make sure he doesn’t over-complicate things. He’s got enough arm strength where he can pitch off his fastball, but also got good feel for his secondary stuff. We want him to pitch to his strengths.”
That has been the key for Davidson’s staff as a whole—keeping it simple. Cooke said junior lefthander Rob Bain (3-1, 4.24), junior lefty Nick Neitzel (6-0, 2.58) and senior righty Danny Mooney (3-3, 2.74) have been able to work fairly deep into games with some consistency, giving the Wildcats a big lift on weekends. “They all know their strengths, and they’re not trying to be six-pitch guys,” Cooke said. “When it’s crunch time, they’re going to go with one of their two best pitches.”
Senior righthander Michael Goldberg (3-2, 1.69, six saves) is a converted infielder who has evolved into a bullpen anchor over the course of his career, giving the Wildcats confidence at the end of games.
“He’s got the right kind of makeup,” Cooke said. “There seems to be a level of fearlessness about him. He’s got a good competitive nature about him. And a couple of other guys have stepped up and done more than maybe we expected.”
For the Wildcats to remain atop the standings, they will have to clean up their defense, and they will have to play well on the road. Four of their first five conference series were at home, but three of their last four are on the road, including sets at Elon and Western Carolina to close the season.
“We have some good teams left in the league, and more games left in the road than we’ve had, so that’ll be a good test to see how we respond to that,” Cooke said. “We have not been very good defensively. That’s been our Achilles’ heel for sure, and that makes me really nervous, because I don’t think you can continue to have the results we’ve had playing the inconsistent level of defense we have. We just haven’t picked it up as well as we need to, too many extra outs. There’s a point you just can’t keep battling through that, the law of averages.”
But right now, Davidson is in first place, and the Wildcats are surely enjoying the ride during their best season in years. It has been fun for Cooke too, especially since he continues to get stronger after a serious car wreck left him in bad shape in September of 2012. He had a knee replacement in October, and he is moving around better now than he did before that procedure.
“I’ve got a few more steps to go, but I’m doing more than I was,” he said. “I like that I get to come out to the ballpark and watch these guys and be vertical.”