For Chris Davis and David Murphy, “in the zone” doesn’t extend to the mound. Each has a successful pitching performance on his resume, but in neither case was there a feeling of being in command. Their scoreless outings — in distinctly different situations — were more “lucked out” than “locked in.”
Murphy made his pitching debut last week, at Fenway Park. With his team trailing 17-5 in the eighth inning, the Rangers outfielder retired three of the four Red Sox batters he faced. After allowing a double to Daniel Nava — on a nine-pitch at bat — he struck out Mike Carp and got Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz to fly out.
Davis also made his pitching debut at Fenway Park, and unlike Murphy’s outing, it wasn’t in a blowout. Early last season, he took the mound in the 16th inning of a tie game and proceeded to earn a win with two scoreless frames. He struck out Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Adrian Gonzalez, and induced a game-ending double play.
I recently asked Davis if there were any similarities between his outing and big games he’s had with the bat. Was his mental focus the same? Did he feel locked in?
“It’s hard to compare pitching to hitting,” responded Davis. “One I do every day and one I hadn‘t done for a long time. But no, I wasn’t locked in on the mound. I was absolutely just trying to throw strikes. The only similarity is that I basically tried to focus on my next pitch, just like I do my next swing.”
Murphy, on the other hand, did feel he was locked in. That doesn’t mean he felt in control, nor was he pitching like his life depended on it.
“I was locked in,” Murphy said. “The inning also flew by. When I’m in the outfield, between pitches I have time to do things like look at the scoreboard, so the game goes by more slowly. On the mound it sped by, because I was into every single pitch.
“I was focused, but at the same time, I didn’t really care,” continued Murphy. “I knew I wasn’t out there to win a game; it was 17-5. It was a different kind of focus, I guess.”
The focus they’re used to is at the plate, and while Murphy isn’t having the same kind of season as Davis — his OPS is .657 and the Orioles first baseman is at 1.095– his career includes a pair of five-hit games and four multi-homer games. He knows what it feels like to be in the zone.
“When you’re locked in at the plate, it does feel different,” said Murphy. “It’s not necessarily a day you hit two home runs — it might just be a day you have four or five great at bats — but you really can’t explain it. Your body simply feels great and things are very slow; everything is in sharp focus. Other days, you’re just searching for that feeling.”
Davis has been in the zone a lot this year. The Orioles slugger is among the league leaders in several offensive categories. Streaky throughout much of his career, he also knows what it feels like to be in search mode.
“In the game where I pitched, I was terrible at the plate,” said Davis. “I was 0 for 8 and struck out five times. You go through stretches like that, but other times you almost don’t feel like you can do anything wrong. Everything feels a little more rhythmic. It’s almost like you’re in a zone, and when you swing the bat the ball seems to go over the fence.”
A lot of balls went over the fence in the games Davis and Murphy pitched in — 12, to be exact — which makes their scoreless outings even more impressive. In last week’s game, the Red Sox scored at least one run in every inning except Murphy’s. But while he out-pitched the pitchers, he didn’t feel like one.
“I was just out there throwing a baseball,” admitted Murphy. “I was going with whatever A.J. [Pierzynski] called and trying not to get hurt in the process. It would have been fun to go out there and throw as hard as I could, and see if I could hit anything spectacular on the radar gun, but for the most part I was just trying to throw strikes.”
Those strikes included a knuckleball. In one of the season’s most curious moments, Carp was ejected for disputing a called strike three on a Murphy floater. The lefthander threw four of them at an average speed of 66 mph.
“I told A.J. before the inning that I threw knuckleballs, so he called a few of them,“ said Murphy. “The rest were fastballs. I threw zero curveballs. I threw one curveball in warm ups and it went to the backstop, so I figured that probably wouldn’t be the best idea.”
The 16 fastballs Murphy threw averaged 77 mph, which made Davis look like a flamethrower by comparison. The majority of his right-handed deliveries reached the plate at 90 mph. For the most part, he was rearing back and firing.
“I can’t really say I had a pitcher mindset out there,” said Davis. “In a way I did, but it wasn’t as though I was game-planning against their lineup or trying to set hitters up. There wasn’t a time where I was going after a sequence or trying to get a guy to chase. I was basically just trying to throw low strikes and get outs. Like I said, I‘m not a pitcher. I‘m a position player who was out there doing the best I could. It worked out, but it’s not like I was in the zone or anything like that.”