When Rick Davis stepped to the mound Feb. 6 at Arizona, ranked second in the country, he was the best-kept pitching secret in college baseball.
Davis, a senior right-hander from Upland, had been a shortstop a year before for Cal State Dominguez Hills. But he beat Arizona, 2-1, striking out 12.
The outing elevated him in the eyes of major league scouts, and the next time he threw, his parents counted at least 10 radar guns aimed at their 22-year-old son.
"He's a pretty good-looking prospect," said Dodger scout Bobby Darwin. "He has a good shot at making the pros."
Davis (5-4) says he knew he could pitch but that few would listen. He has pleaded his case for a starting role since he entered Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut four years ago. Trouble is, he was too valuable at shortstop last year at Dominguez Hills and in junior college. He was a modest 3-0 at Mt. Sac as a pitcher and made only a brief appearance in a mop-up role last year for the struggling Toros, who went 19-30.
The 6-2, 170-pound senior has believers, though. Said his father, Roger: "I knew he could pitch. He's been pitching since he started baseball when he was 7."
Davis is thought to have his best chance of getting into pro ball as a short reliever. His earned-run average is hovering at 2.84 and he has broken the Toro single-season record for strikeouts (125).
Davis is considered a find because most top-flight prospects sign pro contracts right out of high school, scouts say.
What makes Davis so appealing is his command of three pitches: the fastball, a slow curve and his best pitch, a knuckle curve.
The knuckle curve "looks like a fastball and all of a sudden the bottom just drops out," explained Dominguez Hills Coach George Wing.
Davis, who adapted the pitch from a friend while playing American Legion ball, says the rotation has a six-to-12-inch drop.
"The pitch comes easy to me," Davis said. "But some guys just can't throw it."
Davis uses it to set up his fastball, which reportedly has been clocked at about 85 miles an hour, not your Nolan Ryan variety.
"He has good ability (with his pitches)," Darwin said. "That's something you rarely see."
And Davis likes to throw, nibbling at the corners of the plate. In a complete-game victory this season he tossed 168 pitches--a lot.
"We have found that we are going to have to give Rick the ball more," said Wing. "We discovered he is less effective when he pitches on a weekly basis. He needs to pitch a couple of times each week."
Davis is excited about that prospect: "My arm is capable of throwing a lot."
So far this season, Davis has a good strikout-to-walk ratio, 125 to 47 in 104-plus innings. He also has two shutouts. Darwin was the first scout to see Davis pitch, but "when a guy's got ability, the news is going to travel fast."
Davis is aglow at the sudden attention: "I'm kind of surprised at the success. I'm even more surprised with the statistical part of it. I always thought I could pitch."
There was a time he thought he'd be drafted as a shortstop. He almost signed with Oakland after leaving Mt. Sac, but recurring muscle injuries made him think twice.
He wound up at Division II Cal State Dominguez Hills thanks to an acquaintance of Toro Athletic Director Dan Guerrero, who recommended him to then-Coach Andy Lopez.
But again, John Rouse, a sometimes volunteer coach at Mt. Sac, told Lopez that Davis was a fine fielding shortstop, not a pitcher.
"He was the ideal fit for Dominguez Hills," Lopez said. "He was two players in one."
Lopez spent the better part of last year filling out a lineup card that covered for eight major injuries and, of course, Davis was needed at shortstop. At times that was a sore spot for both. "He's a great kid," Lopez said. "He'll make somebody look good if they draft him."
But there was a lot of friction between Lopez and Davis, although both say that is past.
"He wanted me to be more of a leader in the infield," Davis said. "I felt more pressure from him. I'm a quiet guy."
Lopez, aware that Davis wanted to pitch but desperately in need of fielders, never handed him the ball even as the season rapidly slipped away to injuries. And he rode him constantly: "I was on him a lot last year. I thought he could go a lot harder."
Davis said Lopez's intentions eventually made him a better person, but he blames Lopez for a poor showing that included 27 errors and only a .210 batting average.
"I found myself trying to understand what he wanted out of me rather than playing my game," Davis said.
And Lopez wondered if he was being too intense with Davis: "I had a lot of quiet moments when I thought that maybe I was tightening him up too much."
Davis was disappointed with the result: "After that year I said I had to do something amazing to get back into it. I guess that has been pitching."
Late last spring Davis got his break. Lopez left for a Division I job at Pepperdine, and Davis thought he had one last shot to convince the Toros' new coach, Wing, that pitching was his forte. He joined a summer Baseball Congress of America team in Santa Maria and had a stellar summer--at shortstop. He did not pitch. Back at Dominguez Hills in the fall, he wondered if he would ever get the job he wanted.
But things were in the works that Davis did not know about. As the coach at Cosumnes River Community College, Wing had heard that Davis had pitching talent.
"Even before I met Rick, I talked to a few coaches who stated that he could pitch," Wing said. "I didn't know what to expect."
Noting that Dominguez would be thin on pitching, Wing sent Davis to the bullpen "to see what would happen."
In early October Wing was convinced, although when the preseason media guide was released, Davis got no more mention than as a third starter. He has evolved into the ace of the staff, although when he pitches the Toros have problems scoring runs and holding leads.
On March 31 at Cal Poly Pomona he struck out 10 but lost, 3-1. In a return engagement a bloop single and an error helped erase a 4-2 lead in the bottom of the ninth. Davis had no decision and the team lost in 10 innings, 6-5.
Even with Davis' success, Wing found it difficult to think of him as anything other than an infielder at first, particularly since he had taken up switch hitting.
"We drooled over him as a shortstop," Wing said. "He has adjusted to the situation much better than I thought. He put the bat away completely. He never takes batting practice anymore."
Davis may have gotten to the mound sooner had he pushed his point, but that is not his nature. Said his mother, Rosanne: "Rick is not pushy. He sits back and says, 'The coach knows best,' instead of being right up in his face and saying, 'I can pitch.' "
Davis will most likely be drafted this June, although how high he goes depends on a lot of things, according to Darwin.
By now most scouts quit hanging around college teams and go in search of other prospects. Now their radar guns are pointed at potential high school pitching stars. For now Davis' world is quiet again, his ability on the mound no longer a secret.