Always Wanting More
Drive to get better fuels Davis
Most people who saw the home run would probably be quick to recall that the three-run blast run proved to be the game-winner.
Many more would point out that Kentrail Davis hit the ball so hard that it cleared the 22-foot wall 395 feet away in dead center field, and that he broke his bat in the process.
But the part that Davis remembers best has nothing to do with the home run. He recalls the two plate appearances that came before the bomb and conveniently faded to the background of everyone else's memory.
"That was probably my best moment because my first two at-bats, I had struck out," Davis said.
Such an attitude is typical of Davis, his own toughest critic, even when his blast helped Team USA beat Colombia on June 22.
"He goes 3-for-4 with two home runs, and he says, 'No coach, I should have hit that (other) pitch,' " said Todd Raleigh, Davis' coach at Tennessee. "But that's how all the great ones are. All my great players I've ever had, when they get two hits, they want three; they get three hits, they want four."
Davis has been accumulating so many hits for the USA Baseball college national team this summer that even he might be nearly satisfied. Until he was sidelined with a minor wrist injury injury just before USA Baseball's trip to Europe, Davis was hitting .370 with four runs and five RBIs. He had a hit in every game he played in except for one, and he walked twice in that contest. And he was even better during the trials period.
Davis' quick bat and aggressive, but controlled hack get the job done until contact, and then another tool kicks in: speed. His short, quick strides eat up the ground on the basepaths, making him a dangerous runner.
Many of Davis' skills fit right in with his physique. He has a powerful, compact frame at 5-foot-9, 198 pounds, which has drawn comparisons to Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett—an association Davis doesn't mind.
The running back build is also due to an unusual strength training technique in Davis' background. He used to spend his summers working for his father in construction. While many of his peers hung out by the pool, he was lifting and pouring slabs of concrete.
"This team lacked a little bit of physicality to it and some power, and immediately he showed that he had those things," national team coach Rob Walton said. "And we lacked a little bit of foot speed, so he kind of gave us both of those options."
The events of the last two years, however, made it seem unlikely that Davis would end up representing the United States and Tennessee on the baseball diamond.
First, it was a car accident just before his senior season that kept him off the field for a large chunk of the year with whiplash and a minor back injury. But his status as a talented prospect and his gaudy stats as a junior (.444 in 99 at-bats with 12 home runs, 34 RBIs and 34 stolen bases) attracted the Rockies, who selected him in the 14th round last year.
Already committed to a Tennessee program that was mired in a coaching change, and offered a lucrative professional contract, Davis was faced with a decision.
The day after Raleigh was hired as the new Volunteers coach, he drove to Theodore, Ala., to meet with the recruit he called Priority No. 1. Then he waited, held his breath, and sure enough his new center fielder and primary building block for the program arrived on campus in the fall.
"After I found out where I was going in the draft, it wasn't a hard decision to figure out whether I was going to college or not," Davis said. "I'm happy that I went because I learned a lot. I don't think I was ready for pro ball yet."
Then came the hard part. Suddenly, the soft-spoken Davis had to become the answer for a reeling program in the nation's deepest baseball conference.
"We're talking about asking a freshman to carry the load and getting pitched around," Raleigh said. "He got big hits for us, and you just couldn't ask for a bigger year. To ask a freshman to come in and bat in the three-hole in the Southeastern Conference—that's asking a lot."
But the rookie delivered. Davis led the Vols in batting (.330), hits (68), triples (3), home runs (13), RBIs (44) and on-base percentage (.435), and he was named a first-team Freshman All-American for the effort.
Davis must not have minded being trusted with a leadership role in Rocky Top, because he took on a similar role for Team USA.
"He doesn't talk too much, but what guys notice is once he crosses the lines, he's ready to play, and I think that speaks louder than words," Walton said. "There are quiet leaders and then there are vocal leaders. And he's a quiet leader by how he approaches the game of baseball, which I think is very, very professional."
Davis has had other landmark moments with USA Baseball this summer. On June 29, he played for his country on his birthday, and nearly hit a home run as an exclamation point.
"For a minute I thought I had it," he said. "And then I was like, no, it's not hot enough."
The line shot wound up bouncing high off of the left-field wall, nicknamed the Blue Monster, at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park in Durham, N.C. It was part of a two-hit, two-RBI night for Davis as Team USA defeated Taiwan 7-3. Not a bad way to spend a 20th birthday.
More challenges are ahead for the center fielder when the summer ends, including the continued revival of Tennessee's program. And beyond that, if the chips fall where many predict, there is the next level.
While Raleigh is certainly glad Davis turned down the pro contract last year, he knows that another one—and likely a fatter one, at that—lies ahead.
"I honestly believe he can be a 30-30 guy at the next level," Raleigh said. "That's a huge pressure to put on somebody, but he honestly could. I don't coach a lot of kids that I say, 'Hey, he's going to make it,' but he's going to make it.
• USA Baseball added third baseman Scott Woodward (Coastal Carolina) to the National Team roster just before the team left for Europe. He replaces righthander Kevin Rhoderick (Oregon State), who left the team. Woodward, a third baseman, hit .364/.540/.533 with seven home runs, 45 RBI and 42 stolen bases for Coastal Carolina this spring en route to being named to BA's Freshman All-America team.
Two days later, USA Baseball announced another major decision by choosing Tulane coach Rick Jones to lead the 2009 college national team. Jones returns to Team USA after being on the coaching staff in 1989 and 1990.
• In the New England Collegiate League, Newport's Chase Reid (Vanderbilt) provided Independence Day fireworks on the mound when he struck out 19 batters in his first start of the summer. He allowed a home run to lead off the game, but gave up just four hits afterward. He struck out the side four times, fanned at least two batters in an inning six times, and retired every Torrington starter on strikes during the game. As a freshman at Vanderbilt, he had a 4.30 ERA in 23 appearances and a 42-18 strikeout-walk ratio.
• Righthander Brandon Workman (Texas) had one out in the ninth for Wareham in the Cape Cod League before his no-hit bid was broken up. Workman allowed back-to-back singles before retiring the last two batters, finishing with a two-hit shutout. Workman struck out 13 and walked three. He went 5-2, 5.06, in 21 appearances in his freshman season at Texas.
• Two Auburn players were pacing the Cotuit Kettleers and all of the Cape League at the plate. Junior outfielder Mike Bianucci held the league RBI lead with 19, and freshman first baseman Kevin Patterson was close behind with 18. Bianucci led Auburn in on-base and slugging percentage, homers, doubles and walks in the spring. He had stolen six bases for Cotuit and led the Cape with five bombs. But it was Patterson, with a .306 average, who was hitting the ball more consistently this summer. Bianucci was drafted in the eighth round in June by the Rangers and still could sign.
• After completing his sophomore season at Southern Cal and earning third-team All-American honors, Chatham's Grant Green was batting .429 /.521/.610, and he led the Cape in all three categories. He was also among the league leaders in extra-base hits. Y-D's Nick Liles (.411) and Falmouth's A.J. Pollock (.400) were close behind in average to lead Cape Cod hitters.