One pitch into the game, Cubs starter Zach Davies was already working with one out. The next two fastballs out of his hand were also strikes.
“It sets you in such a better position to navigate each at-bat,” Davies said of establishing the fastball early. “It gives you some information on the hitter, what they're trying to do. You're ahead in the count, and you throw from a place of confidence, you don't have to be over the middle of the plate. So, there's a lot of things that being able to get ahead of guys takes care of.”
Davies went from logging the shortest outing of his career against the Pirates last month, to recording his best start of the season on Friday.
The Cubs beat the Pirates 3-2 Friday, propped up by Davies’ seven shutout innings. Davies duplicating the mechanical adjustments and approach that he put into practice Friday would go a long way toward righting the Cubs rotation.
“He seemed like a totally different guy out there,” Cubs manager David Ross said after the game.
The last time Davies faced this Pirates lineup, the right-hander allowed seven runs in just 1 2/3 innings. It was Davies’ second ever game as a Cub, and it unraveled in the second inning as the Pirates clobbered fastballs and changeups alike.
That game started what Davies called “one of the worst stretches” of his career.
“With mechanics, just trying to be sound, trying to limit any kind of extra movement that throws you out of rhythm and out of whack,” Davies said of his focuses as he battled out of that stretch. “And that takes repetitions, it takes time when you're not in the right place. So, I feel like I've improved upon those things now.”
On Friday, not only did Davies make through the second inning – yes, a low bar – but he retired the first six batters he faced to do so.
Davies was so efficient on Friday that he needed just 81 pitches through seven innings. He became the second Cubs pitcher to throw seven innings in a game this season. Kyle Hendricks was the first to reach the mark, on Tuesday.
Davies earned the distinction by pitching out of a bases loaded jam in the seventh inning.
Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy visited Davies on the mound before Pirates third baseman Todd Frazier stepped up to the plate. Davies had given up back-to-back singles and a walk to bring the go-ahead run up to bat.
Again, Davies leaned on the fastball to get ahead in the count. Then he threw two consecutive changeups. The first was out of the zone. The second, Frazier hit softly to the third base side.
Davies charged, barehanded the ball and tossed it to the plate for the force-out.
“That barehand play was pretty legit,” Ross said. “I don’t know that I’ve seen a play like that in a while.”
With next batter, Ka’ai Tom, Davies induced a comeback groundball and threw home. Cubs catcher Willson Contreras stepped on the plate and fired to first base to complete the inning-ending double play.