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May 26, 2012
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. (theACC.com) - Jake Davies has put a new twist on an old saying: Pitch effectively and carry a big stick.
The energetic Georgia Tech senior not only continued his hot hitting with his fourth home run of the ACC Baseball Championship, he took the mound and earned the win Saturday.
The Yellow Jackets' 5-1 victory over Clemson propelled them into Sunday's championship game, scheduled for noon at NewBridge Bank Park.
So is Davies a first baseman who pitches or a pitcher who also plays first base?
"I just consider myself a baseball player," he said. "I just love the game; love every facet of it, down to what kind of pitch you're going to throw in certain situations. I love that it's unpredictable. You go out there and play as hard as you can. It's a boy's game, so I just like to have fun."
Unpredictable is an apt description for Tech. The Jackets are the tournament's No. 8 seed, the last team that qualified, but they won Pool A with victories over No. 1 Florida State, No. 4 Virginia and No. 5 Clemson. All were must-win games - if they had lost Saturday, either Clemson or Virginia would have advanced.
The left-handed Davies, whose brother is Kyle Davies of the Toronto Blue Jays, had pitched in relief as a freshman and sophomore, compiling a 5-0 record. He made only one appearance as a junior, but relieved nine times this year before moving into the rotation. His success had been sporadic, with a 0-3 record and 6.17 ERA.
But he was outstanding Saturday. Coach Danny Hall said he was looking for five innings and around 90 pitches from Davies. He delivered six innings on 92 pitches "and I'll take that every time," Hall said.
After surrendering a home run to leadoff hitter Steve Wilkerson, Davies allowed no more runs and just one other hit, with one walk and three strikeouts. He earned his first victory since March 27 of 2010. Alex Cruz recorded the save with three solid innings of relief.
Davies got the Jackets off to a good start in the top of the first with a two-run homer off Clemson starter Kevin Pohle. He said Pohle threw him five straight fastballs, one of which he hit well but foul. Then he backed slightly off the plate, got another fastball and powered it over the fence in right field. He now has four homers and nine RBIs in the tournament.
"I'm seeing the ball well right now in this tournament," Davies said. "Everything looks big to me, I don't know why. All of a sudden I feel real comfortable at the plate."
Davies' game plan on the mound was to pound the strike zone using his slider and changeup with an occasional mid-80s fastball on the first pitch. He wanted the Tigers to hit the ball and let his defense make plays.
With his adrenaline pumping, he had to calm himself down, particularly after Clemson leadoff hitter Steve Wilkerson hit his first career home run in the bottom of the first. Three excellent defensive plays by third baseman Sam Dove got him out of the inning.
"When you have a guy like Jake on the mound, he brings a lot of intensity from the very first pitch," Dove said, "so we kind of got our defense on our toes. I think everybody really wants to win this tournament and we're playing hard and playing confident."
Davies admitted that was hardly the way he wanted to start.
"I was like `ah, here we go again' because my last couple starts I had given up one run in the first inning," he said. "At that point, it's just re-set, get back on the mound and try to do your best right here. Then Sam made those plays and that set everything for the rest of the game."
The Jackets began lining doubles around the park, five of them, and built the lead to 5-1 after the top of the third inning. That was the extent of their scoring, as Clemson reliever Scott Firth did an excellent job holding them off the scoreboard from there.
But the Tigers never got in a hitting groove against Davies. Coach Jack Leggett said their inability to get the leadoff hitter aboard kept them from putting pressure on him.
"He kept us off-balance," said Clemson's Richie Shaffer. "It wasn't anything too special; it was more of a lack of execution on our part. He threw strikes and challenged us and we didn't put a lot of good swings on them. I got plenty of good pitches to hit; I didn't take good swings in situations when I could have."
Davies did a good job handling the mental shift from being a hitter to going back on the mound.
"I'm a really adrenaline-based guy," he said. "I'm really out there, kind of crazy a little bit, and if I don't calm myself down when I go out there to pitch I'm throwing the ball everywhere.
"I just have to take my deep breaths, walk around the mound a few times and re-set my mind that I'm not in the batter's box anymore, I'm on the pitcher's mound. I've just got to slow the game down a little bit."
He rolled along until the sixth inning. After getting the first two outs, Davies walked Shaffer and then faced Phil Pohl. He was laboring now, but somehow got a strikeout to end the inning and his pitching work.
"I got those two outs quicker than I thought I would," he said, "and then Shaffer comes up and I hit a brick wall. At that point, I was throwing balls everywhere, my arm slot was all over the place.
"(Against) Pohl, I think I went down 2-0, got him to chase a pitch, then pulled out another strike from somewhere... I don't know. Then I got him to swing at something that I was just praying to get in there and hoping he would maybe hit a ground ball or pop fly or something. He swung and missed, so that was the best part. Those two batters were pretty tough."
Having gotten this far, the Jackets will pitch freshman Josh Heddinger, their mid-week starter who has compiled a 3-4 record with a 5.09 ERA, on Sunday. Hall said Buck Farmer, who went six innings to beat Florida State on Wednesday, would not be available and Cruz likely would not, either.
"We've still got some guys who haven't thrown at all," Hall said, "and we'll use them and count on them to get the job done for us."
Clemson's record slipped to 33-26 with the loss, but Leggett said he believes his team will make the NCAA field because of its good schedule and the fact that it finished fifth in the tough ACC with a 16-14 record.
"I would be surprised and disappointed if it came out any other way," he said. "We're a team that people might not want to play if we get to that point."
Georgia Tech, meanwhile, improved to 35-24 as it continued to enhance its NCAA resume. Hall said he would be "shocked" if the Jackets weren't in the field.
"I don't want to stop playing," Davies said. "It's my last year and I want to keep playing as much as I can."
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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