The only thing that ever rattled Noah Davis on a baseball diamond was the roar at Omaha’s TD Ameritrade Park.
But it wasn’t the boisterous crowd of 21,000 that fazed UC Santa Barbara’s freshman righthander at Opening Day of the 2016 College World Series.
It took nothing less than a squadron of screeching F-18s to rock the former Gaucho righthander during a raucous rendition of the national anthem.
“I’m standing there on the line with my hat, the flyover came, and I didn’t know it was coming,” Davis recalled. “I never felt anything like that my entire life. It almost just shook me to my core.
“If I’d been warming up in the bullpen when that happened, I think I would’ve freaked out … And then to have to get out some of the best players in baseball? Thank God for me, I didn’t have to pitch the first game there.
“I got to watch Shane Bieber do his thing and then wait a couple of days to do mine.”
Bieber lost a 1-0 pitcher’s duel with Thomas Hatch of Oklahoma State on that Opening Day. Davis also gave up just one run two days later during six innings of a 5-3 win over Miami that kept the Gauchos alive in the double-elimination tournament. He’s been riding the contrails of his former teammate ever since.
Bieber flew a straight line to big-league stardom after Cleveland chose him in the fourth round of the 2016 Major League Baseball Draft. He was pitching in the majors just two years later and then hit the afterburners while winning the 2020 American League Cy Young Award.
Davis, meanwhile, has throttled up his own game in his MLB spring training debut this month. He’s pitched four no-hit innings in two appearances with the Colorado Rockies, striking out four batters with just one walk.
His flight path into the rarified air of the big leagues, however, has been more like a barrel roll.
“It’s all been just pretty crazy,” he conceded.
Davis won 14 games during his first two seasons at UCSB. He then impressed the legion of big-league scouts that flocked to the elite Cape Cod League during the summer of 2018 with an earned-run average of 2.81 in five appearances with the Cotuit Kettleers.
“I feel like everybody says this, but I was projected to be in the fifth and probably in the top three rounds (of the 2018 MLB Draft),” Davis said. “I was riding a little bit of hype from the Cape Cod League, and the fall went really well. I was having meetings with basically every team.”
An Elbow to the Gut
But that all unraveled with an elbow injury that required surgery just a few weeks into his junior season at UCSB.
“It seemed that immediately, 75-to-80% of the teams were just out,” Davis said. “I honestly didn’t know what was going to happen.”
It felt more like a rescue when the Cincinnati Reds selected him in the 11th round of the 2018 MLB Draft.
“With the timing of my surgery, I was going to miss the rest of my junior year and then the entirety of my senior year,” he recalled. “I would’ve had to wait another year to come back in the fifth year, which would’ve been 2020.
“It’s good I didn’t have to do that because that season got canceled (by the COVID-19 pandemic).”
The Reds’ training staff also “gave me everything I needed to make that comeback,” Davis said.
But it still took nearly 10 months before he could throw another baseball.
“Most people pick it up after 5½, six months post-surgery,” he said. “But my surgeon recommended that the more time you wait, the better — the more time it has to heal, the better — so we took it pretty slowly.”
He recalls being “super-nervous” about making his first throw in the 40-degree chill at the Reds’ training facility in Arizona.
“I was like, ‘Wow, this doesn’t feel like the right time to do it,’” Davis said. “But it just seemed to go pretty cleanly after that. Once I started throwing, I didn’t really have many hiccups. I was feeling better and better, and just worked my way back.”
He hit 96 mph during his first real pitching session. By the time last summer rolled around, he was starting for the Dayton Dragons, the Reds’ High-A affiliate.
“Before Tommy John (surgery), I was anywhere from like 90 to where I hit 98 once, but it was a big range,” Davis said. “Following the surgery, I was more consistently in the 92-to-95 range … My average velo was up, but I wasn’t able to get that top-end velocity.
“Over the past year, it kept ticking up and, by the end, I was feeling really good … I was bummed to see the season end. I wanted to throw another 50 innings.”
Parting Ways with the Reds
He did have to steady himself after another dizzying barrel roll during the morning of July 28: The Reds called to say that he’d been traded to the Rockies’ organization for Major League reliever Mychal Givens.
Davis said it felt bizarre to tell roommate Eric Yang — his catcher at both UCSB and Dayton — that, “I’m not going to the field today.”
“I was in complete shock,” he said. “I didn’t think for even one second that I could get traded. But it took me maybe 12 minutes before I started thinking, ‘How am I going to figure out how to pitch in (the high altitude of Denver’s) Coors Field? … Am I going to have to start throwing sinkers?’
“It kind of flipped really quick … Everybody was reassuring me that, ‘Hey, if you get traded for a big-leaguer, that means the team that’s getting you values you.’”
He went 3-1 the rest of the season, helping Spokane win 30 of its last 39 games and capture the Western Division pennant of the Class A Northwest League.
“Once I got to Spokane, I definitely felt beloved,” he said. “They welcomed me super-fast and super-easily, and we all just clicked. I just felt right at home.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been on a team that was hotter than that Spokane team for the last six weeks of the season … It was that kind of magic you just try to capture in a bottle and hope it stays there forever.”
Davis did have to change his pitch selection with the Rockies, an organization that values pitching to contact more than strikeouts.
“The philosophy with the Reds was to strike out as many guys as we possibly could, with a little bit more leniency on walks,” he said. “We were basically focused on developing nasty stuff … developing ‘out’ pitches that are hard to hit.
“With that comes the growing pains of, ‘You’re learning a new pitch, you’re probably not going to have the best command with it, but we’ll take the higher upside pitch over the worst pitch that you can lob over the plate.’”
He showed his fastball “only 35% of the time” while going mostly with two breaking balls and a changeup.
“And then, when I got traded, I was working with (pitching coaches) Ryan Kibler and Doug Linton, and talking about upping my fastball usage,” Davis said. “I was still trying to strike out guys but also forcing them to respect the fastball.
“With the defense we had in Spokane, it was really easy to trust my stuff over the plate — try to get weak contact and get through innings quicker and just let the defense work. The next thing you know, you’re not walking as many guys. You’re also not striking out as many but you’re getting through innings in a different way.”
Davis struck out 106 batters and walked 35 during his 100 innings in Dayton last summer. He struck out just 29 more with only eight walks in the final 35 innings he threw for Spokane.
“I reached almost the same end result, with my ERA in Dayton (3.60) almost exactly the same as in Spokane (3.86),” he pointed out. “It was a very different experience and different style of pitching.
“I’ve thought about it a lot, and I really like how that turned out — seeing both sides of the coin.”
Davis worried, however, about getting flipped again to another team. His age would have exposed him in last December’s Rule 5 Draft if the Rockies didn’t include him on their 40-man, Major League roster.
Remaining On a Rockies Road
Another life-defining, morning phone call on Nov. 19 informed Davis that Colorado would be protecting him.
“It came right when I woke up, so I didn’t have to sweat it that day,” he said. “It set a lot of worries to rest. It made it easier for me to say, ‘All right, it’s time to go … The path is there and it’s time to keep putting in the work and let this thing ride and see how far it takes me.’”
Davis was kept in limbo for a little while longer, however, when the owners’ contract dispute with the Major League Baseball Players Association prompted a league-wide lockout.
“It was kind of like, ‘Welcome to the party!’ and then ‘The party’s shut down,’” he observed.
He doesn’t expect to be in Denver for Opening Day against the Dodgers on April 8 no matter how many more scoreless innings he throws this spring. The club’s plan is to start him at its Double-A farm club. His new team, the Hartford Yard Goats, will play host to their own Opening Day against the Binghamton Rumble Ponies, a New York Mets affiliate, on April 8.
It will be tough to beat his own personal Opening Day at the 2016 College World Series — the one he pitched two days after the U.S. Air Force rattled his bones.
“Once I threw my warmup pitches and got the ball back, I took a breath and looked around,” Davis recalled. “I just took a second to appreciate it for myself and realize what it was and how I may never get that kind of opportunity again.
“The only thing comparable would be pitching in the Major League World Series, as far as what’s at stake, and the feeling you get from being with all your friends and the journey it took to get there. You don’t know if you’ll ever get to do that again.”
He paused a moment to consider the trajectory of his current course in baseball.
“Hopefully I will with the Rockies,” he said.
Other Ex-Gaucho Hopefuls
Shane Bieber: The former UCSB ace struggled in his first and only start this spring for Cleveland on Wednesday, giving up two home runs and four runs total in 1.1 innings against the Dodgers. He’s still expected to be the Guardians’ starting pitcher on Opening Day in Kansas City on April 7.
Kyle Nelson: Bieber’s former Gaucho and Cleveland teammate has made himself right at home in his new role as a lefthander reliever for Arizona. He’s allowed just two hits, one walk and one run (2.25 ERA) in four innings with the Diamondbacks.
Dillon Tate: The former first-round draft pick of the Texas Rangers found his own new home in Baltimore after twice getting traded in the minor leagues. He’s surrendered just one hit, no walks and no runs in 3.1 innings of relief this spring for the Orioles.
Joe Record: He’s destined for the minor leagues this summer even though the Houston Astros placed him on their 40-man roster last fall. His only Major League inning in spring training came more than a week ago against Miami when he gave up just one hit, no walks and no runs while striking out two of the four batters he faced.
Dalton Kelly: The Oakland Athletics, in dire need of a first baseman, picked up the former Tampa Bay farmhand during the offseason. They’ve given him 19 at-bats so far this spring — the third-most on the team — but his infield single against Seattle on Sunday was only his second hit (.105 average) so far. The good news for the former Gaucho is that no one else has established himself as a strong candidate for the job.
Armani Smith: He has less of a chance of playing across the Bay from Kelly despite having a better spring with the San Francisco Giants. He’s hit a pair of solo home runs and is batting .375 (3-for-8) with several stellar plays in an outfield that already packs a lot of power.
Other Local Spring Hopefuls
Andrew Vasquez : The lefthanded, breaking-ball specialist from Westmont College could stick with Toronto after having pitched in both the Twins and Dodgers organizations last year. He’s appeared in three games so far this spring, allowing two runs, but picking up his first spring training save for the Blue Jays on Saturday.
Danny Duffy: The former Cabrillo High star re-signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers on March 17 even though a flexor strain kept him from pitching for them last season. He was having a good summer with Kansas City, posting an ERA of 2.51 in 13 outings, when the Dodgers traded for him last summer. He underwent offseason surgery on his flexor tendon and won’t be ready to pitch until June.
Gabe Speier: The former Dos Pueblos High star, another lefthander who’s been traded four times in his career, was called up by the Kansas City Royals for short stints in each of the last three years. He has a better chance to stick this summer, having allowed just three hits, no walks, and one run with three strikeouts in 2.2 innings this spring for a 3.38 ERA.
Jeff McNeil: The New York Mets have slotted the former Goleta Valley South Little League All-Star as their starting second baseman this season. He went 2-for-3 with a triple on Saturday and is batting .231 so far this spring.
James McCann: Like McNeil, the former Dos Pueblos High star has already been anointed as he Mets’ everyday catcher. He went 1-for-2 in his spring training debut but has been sidelined ever since with a minor back strain.
— Noozhawk sports columnist Mark Patton is a longtime local sports writer. Contact him at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk Sports on Twitter: @NoozhawkSports. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook. The opinions expressed are his own.