Rajai Davis spent 14 seasons in the major leagues, including 2014 and 2015 with the Detroit Tigers. He was a solid role player who created some excitement from time to time. Davis’ playing days are done, but he has taken his baseball career in a brand new direction. The former outfielder is now part of MLB’s Baseball Operations Department.
On February 1, MLB Communications tweeted an announcement regarding five new additions to MLB’s Baseball Operations Department. Rajai Davis, the new Sr. Director of On-Field Operations, was pictured with a familiar Detroit Tigers cap atop his head. His new duties will have him focusing on rule changes and amateur baseball.
Davis will also be mentoring minority players, both amateurs and minor leaguers. In that regard, this fan believes that Rajai is a solid choice. He always came across as a likeable guy when he played for the Tigers. His charismatic smile and easy-going nature quickly come to mind. A motivational video that Davis filmed for the sports ministry organization Athletes In Action USA in 2014, his first season in Detroit, is an excellent testament to his character and his convictions.
In 2015, Davis got his feet wet as a mentor. He was a 34-year-old veteran, and the Tigers had him take 24-year-old Anthony Gose under his wing in spring training. Because there was some common ground between the two, the team may have thought that Davis could be a positive influence on the newly-acquired Gose. They were teammates briefly in Toronto before separately finding their way to Detroit. Both were also known as speedy runners. Gose liked Davis. He said,
"“Rajai is the nicest guy in the world. I don’t know if he would kill a fly on the wall. He’s the nicest, funniest guy. I imagine he’s the funniest guy on the team. The things he says. Sometimes the things he does. Everybody laughs all the time around Rajai.”"
Seeing Davis pictured in the Olde English D in the announcement tweet brought back good memories of his time with the team. In recognition of his new role with MLB, and in the spirit of Black History Month, this is a story about Davis’ first season as a Tiger. Detroit won its fourth straight American League Central title in 2014, and Rajai was a contributor.
Davis made his first impact as a Tiger on April 4. The day may not have started the way he would’ve preferred. In the bottom of the second, he was hit in the right hand by a pitch from the Orioles’ Miguel Gonzalez. Davis took one for the team, though, because that loaded the bases for Ian Kinsler. The Tigers trailed 2-1. Kinsler’s line drive single drove Alex Avila in with the tying run, but Nick Castellanos was thrown out trying to score. Davis stayed on second base and took third when Torii Hunter was hit by a pitch. The bases were re-loaded for Miguel Cabrera. Gonzalez couldn’t have been feeling good about the situation. His second pitch to Miggy was wild, and Davis scampered home safely. His first run as a Tiger was the go-ahead run.
It was a rainy Friday afternoon in Detroit, and the start of the game had been delayed 10 minutes. Before Davis could return to the plate in the fourth inning, the skies opened up again. There was a 34-minute delay this time. Once it was over, Davis stepped in against Gonzalez. There were two on and no outs. The right-handed hitting Rajai smacked a high fly ball that landed just over the wall in the left-field corner. His first home run in a Tigers uniform was a three-run bomb that gave the team a 6-2 lead. Detroit went on to thump Baltimore 10-4.
The next day, Davis, the Tigers’ starting left fielder, made his presence felt early. In the top of the first, the Orioles’ Chris Davis (no relation) singled to left, which drove in a run. Chris headed for second base as Rajai was fielding the ball where it dropped in, not far from the foul line. The Tigers’ Davis made an excellent throw to nab the Orioles’ Davis. Detroit was up 3-1 when Rajai singled to lead off the fifth. He stole second, advanced to third on a groundout, and scored on Hunter’s two-run homer. Davis contributed a sacrifice fly to the Tigers’ output in the sixth. The run he drove in turned out to be a surprisingly important insurance run. Although it gave the Tigers a 7-1 lead at the time, the Orioles rallied for six runs in the top of the ninth. With two on and two outs, Chris Davis flew out to Rajai Davis to end the game. Detroit escaped with a 7-6 win.
Max Scherzer of the Tigers and Jarred Cosart of the Astros were locked in a pitching duel at Comerica Park on May 5. Scherzer had been the sharper of the two, yet Cosart was able to hold up his end of a 0-0 tie heading into the bottom of the seventh. When play resumed after “Take Me Out To The Ballgame”, Castellanos reached safely on an error and Avila walked. Andrew Romine’s sacrifice bunt moved both runners into scoring position for Davis. Rajai singled through the hole on the left side of the infield to drive in the first run of the game. Victor Martinez homered in the eighth, and the Tigers won 2-0.
Davis entered a game in Oakland on May 27 as a pinch-runner for J.D. Martinez in the eighth inning of a 5-5 tie. The unfortunately named Fernando Abad was pitching for the A’s, and he was about to have a bad inning. Abad’s first pitch to Castellanos resulted in a passed ball that sent Davis to second. Oakland catcher Derek Norris, who had taken over behind the plate that inning, was making lazy throws back to the mound. Davis had already sniffed that out when he took his lead on the 2-1 pitch. His intentions were larcenous. When Norris lobbed the ball back to Abad again, Davis bolted for third. Abad didn’t even see the thieving Tiger’s headfirst slide into the bag. Rajai scored on Austin Jackson’s groundout, and Detroit eked out a 6-5 win.
A Grand Moment
It was a festive night at Comerica Park on June 30. A crowd of 42,477 was on hand not only to see the first place 2014 Tigers, but also the 1984 Tigers. The 30th anniversary of the “Bless You Boys” team’s world championship season was being celebrated, and members of the squad were honored in a pre-game ceremony.
Anibal Sanchez of the Tigers and Scott Kazmir of the A’s took turns putting zeroes on the scoreboard through five innings. Each team scored a run in the sixth. Davis kept an Oakland runner off the bases in the seventh when he slid on his knees to catch a sinking line drive and rob John Jaso of a base hit. The A’s rallied for three runs in the eighth. The Tigers went into the bottom of the ninth with a 4-1 lead to overcome. Castellanos led off with a single against closer Sean Doolitte. Avila singled him to third. Rookie Eugenio Suarez struck out. Jackson battled his way to a nine-pitch walk. That set the stage for Davis, who had played for A’s earlier in his career.
Davis put a good swing on a 1-0 pitch from Doolittle, and he walloped it. As soon as he made contact, the crowd sensed that Rajai had gotten all of it. He did. Beyond the left-field fence, the Tigers’ bullpen catcher snagged the ball in his mitt. It was an incredible walk-off grand slam. On the radio, the exuberance of announcer Dan Dickerson’s call perfectly matched the electric vibe at the ballpark. With arms raised victoriously in the air, Davis began to round the bases. He had a deliriously happy smile on his face, as if he was a little kid who just got everything he wanted for Christmas. His amped-up teammates rushed the plate, ready to greet the hero of the night as he scored the final run. Cabrera couldn’t wait to celebrate with everyone. Miggy met Davis halfway between third base and home for a leaping high-five.
On the field with Fox Sports Detroit’s Trevor Thompson after the game, Davis said that he got a good pitch to hit and “was able to take care of it”. He credited Jackson for his key at-bat and added that he was grateful for “Doolittle’s mistake”. In the locker room with reporters on FSD’s “Tigers Live” post-game show, Davis said that when he hit it, he wasn’t sure that it was going to be gone. He was just hoping that the wind would blow it out. To him, Doolittle’s pitch looked like a slider that was middle of the plate and in.
Two of the stars from the 1984 Tigers who were at the ballpark that night knew what it felt like to crush a walk-off grand slam. Alan Trammell hit one in 1988, and Lou Whitaker did it in 1994. Maybe Tram and Lou were good luck charms. On an afternoon in June 20004 when the 20th anniversary of the ’84 team was being celebrated, the Tigers won the game on Carlos Peña’s walk-off grand slam. When Matthew Mowery of The Oakland Press shared that cool tidbit with Davis, his response was a surprised “Come on. No way!”
Davis got a surprise of a different kind on July 31 when he was sent in as a defensive replacement for a player who was no longer his teammate. It was Trade Deadline Day. The Tigers were in the midst of an afternoon game with the White Sox at Comerica Park when the word came down that Austin Jackson had just been traded. At that moment, with one out in the top of the seventh, Jackson happened to be stationed in center field. Time out was called, and Davis took over for Jackson, the now-former Tiger. Rajai had been primarily a left fielder in Detroit to that point, but he had plenty of experience in center prior to becoming a Tiger. For the duration of the season, he often started in center, but would slide over to left field late in games.
That kind of maneuvering paid off in Toronto on August 8. Davis doubled and scored in the fourth, cutting a Tigers’ deficit to 4-2. Detroit rallied for three runs in the top of the ninth to take a 5-4 lead. Manager Brad Ausmus moved Davis from center to left in the bottom half, replacing the defensively weaker J.D. Martinez. Ezequiel Carrera entered the game as the Tigers’ new center fielder. The Blue Jays’ Jose Bautista greeted Tigers closer Joe Nathan with a single. Nathan got the next two hitters out, but then he walked two in a row to load the bases. A foul ball off the bat of Josh Thole drifted toward foul territory in shallow left field. With two other teammates, shortstop Suarez and third baseman Don Kelly, in pursuit, Davis hustled his way over to where the ball was about to drop. He made a sliding catch to quell the Toronto threat and preserve a 5-4 Detroit victory.
Chasing After A Division Title
September began with the Tigers and Royals tied for first place in the AL Central with identical 74-62 records. The Indians trailed by 2.5 games. The White Sox and Twins, far behind the contenders, waited for opportunities to play the spoiler role. Davis contributed to victories against all four as Detroit made a bid for its fourth consecutive division title.
The Tigers were in Cleveland on September 4. Davis had an RBI single in the Tigers’ four-run, first inning rally against rookie starter Trevor Bauer. The Indians chipped away at the lead and tied the game 4-4 in the eighth inning. With one out in the top of the 11th inning, reliever Josh Tomlin walked Davis. That sparked an amazing seven-run rally. Davis scored the go-ahead run on a single by Suarez. In the bottom half, Rajai wasn’t taking the huge lead for granted. With one out, he went all out to make a nice diving catch on Lonnie Chisenhall’s slicing drive to deep left, which robbed his opponent of a sure double. Detroit picked up an 11-4 win. At the end of the day’s action, though, the Tigers trailed the Royals by a half-game for the division lead.
In the bottom of the second inning against the Royals at home on September 9, Davis slammed Jason Vargas’ two-strike pitch into the left-field stands. Rajai’s two-run homer gave the Tigers a 3-0 lead. The Tigers won 4-2 and reclaimed first place from the Royals for the moment. Detroit beat Cleveland 7-2 on September 12 to finally claim a division lead that the team would not relinquish. However, Kansas City wasn’t ready to go away yet.
The second-place Royals trailed by only one game coming into play on September 23 as the first-place Tigers prepared to host the White Sox. Davis collected more hits against the division rivals from Chicago (18) than any other opponent that season. (He also had 16 hits off Kansas City pitching.) True to form, he led off the fifth with a single. He advanced to second on Kinsler’s groundout. That brought up Hunter. Davis had a nice lead off the bag, which went unnoticed by pitcher Scott Carroll. On the 0-1 pitch, the Detroit speedster was off and running. Catcher Josh Phegley’s throw sailed into left field, and Davis scored standing up. That put the Tigers up 1-0. In the seventh, Davis reached safely on an error and came around to score on Hunter’s ground-rule double. The Tigers would need a walk-off single from Cabrera to win 4-3. The Royals beat the Indians to hold the Tigers’ lead at one game.
Chris Sale, Chicago’s lefty ace, was on the mound the next afternoon. Davis singled off him to lead off the third. Hunter singled him to second, but Davis was stranded after Sale struck out Cabrera and Victor Martinez. The Tigers and White Sox were tied 1-1 in the seventh when Davis singled off reliever Javy Guerra. Kinsler’s double into the left-field corner drove him in. Rajai was running on the pitch and easily scored the go-ahead run. The Tigers added another run in the inning and padded the lead in the eighth. Davis contributed to the latter rally by beating out a bouncer to short for a base hit, which drove in Don Kelly. Davis then stole his 35th base of the season, which matched the entire output of the 2013 Tigers. (Chicago was a favorite target of his that season. Earlier in the month, he stole the 300th base of his career against the White Sox.)
Davis scored on Kinsler’s single, and the Tigers won the game 6-1. Coupled with a Royals loss, that bumped their division lead to two games. Davis’ speed was a key part of the victory, and Jeff Seidel of the Detroit Free Press focused on that in a column that shined a spotlight on Rajai’s importance to the team. Seidlel pointed out,
"“This is what the Tigers were missing last year – somebody who can manufacture runs with his legs. Somebody who can freak out the opposing pitcher. Somebody who can change an intense, tight game with his legs, which is crucial in the playoffs.”"
The Twins arrived in Detroit on September 25 for a four-game series that would wrap up the regular season. With two outs in the fifth, the Tigers were up 3-2. Davis dropped a bunt down toward the third-base line and beat it out for a hit. He promptly stole second but went no further. The score hadn’t changed when Davis came up with a runner on second base in the seventh inning. He ripped a double down the right-field line to drive in Avila. Unfortunately, Davis got greedy and tried to steal third. Twins pitcher Ryan Pressly, who had been keeping an eye on Davis, threw to third and caught Rajai red-handed. The Tigers did prevail, though, winning 4-2. The Royals beat the White Sox to stay two back in the AL Central race.
Somehow, the Twins thumped the Tigers 11-4 and 12-3 the next two days, allowing the Royals to cut the Tigers’ division lead to one game. The latter loss was especially painful for Detroit. Davis grounded out to end the bottom of the second inning, but hurt himself in the process. He was removed from the game with what the team called a “grade 1 pubic symphysis sprain”. At the time, there was no idea how much time Davis might miss. A White Sox win over the Royals that day kept KC from snaring a first-place tie in the AL Central. Rajai sat out the season finale on September 28, which the Tigers won 3-0 to finally clinch the division title.
The 2014 ALDS
The Tigers began American League Division Series play in Baltimore against the AL East champions on October 2. Davis wasn’t cleared to play until that day. Batting ninth and playing center field, he would be making his postseason debut in Game 1 against the Orioles. An excited Davis said,
"“I’ve always sat back in October and thought ‘Man, one day, I don’t know when it’s going to be, but one day I’m going to be playing in these games.’ I finally have the opportunity. It’s really something that I’ve been wishing for for a while.”"
Detroit was down 3-2 in the top of the fifth with two outs and one on when Davis singled to left for his first postseason hit. He advanced to second when Kinsler walked. The Tigers’ bases-loaded threat fizzled when Hunter’s grounder to third forced Kinsler at second to end the inning. The 3-2 score would be as close as the Central Division champs got. The Orioles broke the game wide open with a vicious eight-run assault against the Tigers bullpen in the eighth inning. The final score was a brutal 12-3.
In Game 2, the Tigers had rallied for five runs in the top of the fourth inning. By the time Davis came up as the eighth batter in the inning, there were two outs and nobody on. He smacked a hard line drive that ricocheted off the wall in the left-field corner. For a fully healthy Davis, it would’ve been an easy double. Unfortunately, he was still feeling the effects of the strain he incurred the regular season’s next-to-last game. That was apparent by how slowly he hobbled out of the batter’s box. Davis held up at first base with a single and was lifted for pinch-runner Ezequiel Carrera. To add insult to injury, the Tigers’ bullpen blew the lead in the eighth inning. The Orioles won 7-6 to take a two-game lead in the ALDS.
The series moved to Detroit, but Davis was not in the starting lineup for Game 3. He got into the game in the seventh inning as a pinch-hitter for Don Kelly and lined out. The Tigers lost a 2-1 heartbreaker, and the Orioles successfully completed their sweep. With the loss, Detroit disappeared from baseball’s postseason scene and has not yet returned.
Davis hit .282/.320/.401 in his first season with the Tigers. His 1.6 bWAR was sixth-best among Tigers hitters and 10th best overall. He served as the team’s leadoff hitter and ninth-place hitter in almost equal amounts. In 245 plate appearances atop the lineup, he hit .290/.324/.420 with four home runs. In 232 plate appearances at the bottom, he hit .257/.300/.360 with four home runs. He made 99 appearances in left field (72 starts) and 48 appearances in center (46 starts).
For the 2015 season, Davis was the Tigers’ primary leadoff hitter and starting centerfielder. Highlights included a home run in a 1-0 win on Jackie Robinson Day on April 15, a leadoff triple off Chris Sale of the White Sox on May 6, a stellar leaping catch to rob the Cubs’ David Ross of a home run at Comerica Park on June 9, a two-HR game on September 7, a walk-off sacrifice fly to win a 13-inning game on September 8, and a 10th inning walk-off triple on September 22. All of those big moments were surpassed, however, by the birth of his son in June.
Davis was eligible for free agency after the season, and the Tigers opted not to re-sign him. His fate in Detroit was sealed when the team acquired outfielder Cameron Maybin in November. That set in motion a chain of events that led to Rajai temporarily becoming a postseason hero. In December, Davis signed with the Indians, who made it to the 2016 World Series against the Cubs. In Game 7, his two-run homer in the eighth inning tied the game at 6-6. The Cubs, however, went on to win 8-7 in 10 innings and claim their first world championship since 1906.
(Click here for a playlist of YouTube videos featuring Davis’ 2014 in-game moments and on-screen interviews described above.)