Heading into his junior year at Auburn University in 2019, starting pitcher Davis Daniel was ready to go. A move to the bullpen during his sophomore season had put him back on track following a rough start to his college career, and ultimately led to a selection by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 11th round of the 2018 draft.
But Daniel chose to return to Auburn for his junior year rather than sign with the Brewers. Staying looked to be the right move, the righty from Montgomery was named the Opening Night starter for the number 15 team in the nation.
“Halfway through my sophomore year I got moved to the bullpen. I made some pretty big adjustments, and once I made those, everything got better. It was too late to improve my draft stock for that year,” Daniel said. “I knew that if I took what I had learned in the second half of that season and went into my junior year with that same mentality, I would have a chance to push my draft stock up.”
In the first inning, he allowed a run. Nothing too unusual, despite a little command trouble. Auburn answered with five to give Daniel a comfortable lead. There was another sign of trouble in the second as he bounced a warm up pitch, leaving a funny feeling in his right arm. He muscled through the inning, throwing an 82-mile-per-hour pitch to get an inning-ending strikeout.
When he got back to the dugout, Daniel was asked by one of his coaches where he learned to throw that changeup. The only problem was, Daniel didn’t throw a changeup. The 82-mile-per-hour pitch was supposed to be a fastball. It would prove to be the final pitch of Daniel’s college career.
Tommy John surgery followed a few months later, and Daniel could only watch as his teammates made a run to the College World Series.
“It was tough to come to terms that my season was over,” he said. “But it gave me a lot of opportunity as well. I took it upon myself to step up and be a leader in the locker room and a leader in the dugout to try and help the team even though I couldn’t be on the field. Those guys made an incredible run to the College World Series and it was extremely fun to be a part of.”
Although his junior season lasted only two innings, Daniel’s draft stock did improve. The Los Angeles Angels picked him in the seventh round, and he began his professional career by rehabbing in Arizona that summer.
As the calendar flipped to 2020, Daniel was excited to get started in his first full professional season while knowing he would have missed the first month or two while rehabbing his elbow. But in March, the pandemic shut down spring training and Daniel was back in Montgomery with no minor league season to play in. During that time, some valuable lessons were learned.
“I learned to respect the relationships I made throughout the game because you never know when it’s going to go away,” he said. “As well as working your butt off. It can be taken away at any time and you want to do everything you can to stay on the field, take care of your body, and take advantage of every opportunity you get.”
Fully healthy leading into the 2021 season, Daniel was invited to Major League spring training by the Angels to gain experience. During the first day of live at-bats, Daniel was welcomed to big league camp by facing the future American League MVP, Shohei Ohtani. The at-bats against the Angels’ perennial All-Star were a welcome sight for Daniel.
“I went from facing college hitters in 2019 to facing Shohei Ohtani. That was an incredible experience to be around those guys at spring training,” Daniel recalled. “That was my welcome to professional baseball moment.”
A few weeks later, Daniel was off to start his first minor league season with the High-A Tri-City Dust Devils. In his first real game action in two years, Daniel was expectedly a little nervous. He walked 12 over his first two starts, spanning just 6.1 innings.
“I was pitching around guys and trying to nitpick too much. That’s not who I am and not what I was used to doing. I felt like my stuff wasn’t as good as it was before surgery,” he said. “Once I realized I was good enough to do this, then I gained a lot of confidence and was able to get the ball rolling.”
In his next two starts, Daniel struck out 17 and walked just two to end May on a high note. Everything went right in June, as Daniel went 3-0 with a 1.29 ERA (4 ER/28.0 IP) and 39 strikeouts over five starts to earn High-A West Pitcher of the Month honors.
Daniel earned the win on June 29 at Spokane to end his sensational run. In the clubhouse after the game, Dust Devils Manager Andy Schatzley called out Daniel in front of the whole team and shared the news that Daniel was being promoted to the Trash Pandas for his Double-A debut.
“That was a cool experience for me, getting to celebrate with my teammates after he told me I was going to Double-A,” Daniel said of the moment. “I got to thank everyone for the help and the opportunity. Baseball is a very individual sport, but a very team one at the same time. It was a moment I’ll never forget.”
With that, Daniel was on his way back to his home state of Alabama, journey years in the making for the Auburn alum. When Daniel was at Auburn, he recalled friends buying Trash Pandas merchandise after learning of the name.
“When I got drafted by the Angels, I had a ton of friends texting me that they couldn’t wait for me to be on the Trash Pandas,” he said. “Coming here really exceeded my expectations. The fans were so much fun and the team was awesome.”
Similar to his start at Tri-City, Daniel’s first few starts with the Trash Pandas were a struggle before a strong of strong outings to end July. It began with a tough-luck loss on July 31 when he allowed two runs but struck out 10. In his next start on August 7, Daniel was on his game to earn his first Double-A win, firing eight scoreless frames with 11 strikeouts as Rocket City crushed Chattanooga 14-2.
“That game in Chattanooga was fun because I was cruising and our offense was cruising at the same time. It was like a party in the dugout since we were putting up so many runs,” Daniel said of the August 7 game. “It was one of those games where we knew we were probably going to win, so there wasn’t as much pressure for the last few innings. It felt like a kid’s game again.”
With friends and family at Toyota Field cheering him on, Daniel struck out 11 Tennessee Smokies over six strong innings in a 4-2 Trash Pandas win on September 3. Feeling good following the win, Daniel stayed on the field with his family to watch the fireworks until Trash Pandas pitching coach came back on the field looking for him.
“I went with him into (Trash Pandas Manager) Jay Bell’s office and he told me I was going to Triple-A. That was another huge moment for me. Coming into this year starting at High-A I was doing everything I could to get to Double-A,” he said “Getting to Double-A was my goal, so when I got the call to go to Triple-A, it was an awesome experience.”
He only made five appearances at Triple-A Salt Lake and struggled at times for the Bees, but ended his year on a high note with nine strikeouts in the final game of the season at Tacoma on October 3. The taste of the minors’ highest level has put Daniel on the right path heading into the 2022 season.
In a few weeks, Daniel will head to Arizona for spring training with the goal of reaching the big leagues in 2022. That would be a long way from that chilly February 2019 night when he walked off the mound at Plainsman Park for the final time.
Top Photo Credits: Auburn Athletics, Cristina Byrne/Rocket City Trash Pandas, Asay Photography/Salt Lake Bees