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Kyle Davis hadn’t thrown off a pitcher’s mound in five days. When you first pick up a baseball at 3 years old and then spend half of your life trying to get the right people to notice your right arm, that’s nearing an eternity. The Chatham coaches told Kyle he’d go against Hyannis regardless of score or circumstance, but he didn’t give off the air of a pitcher readying himself to throw.
Around 4 p.m., with the June 29 game still three hours away, he stood in front of his teammates in the bullpen and orchestrated a conversation that should have been accompanied by hors d’oeuvres. Then he made faces behind the camera to distract a teammate during an interview, and topped off his pregame routine by squatting for Ty Moore, the Anglers’ left fielder, for a pseudo bullpen session in front of the left-field wall.
It’s not that Kyle isn’t preparing. That’s exactly what he’s doing. He could be scheduled to pitch, rest, watching from the stands or working in the concession stands — another day at the ballpark is another chance to groom his craft in his own idiosyncratic way. The only thing working harder than his unflappable disposition is his commitment to the game, its nuances and traditions, and all the fun that comes with living inside it.
“Unlike a lot of guys, I don’t really get serious until I am actually on the mound,” Kyle said. “But once I get there I feel something that just comes over me. That it’s just me and the catcher and the hitter, and that it’s my game”
Kyle laughs at a lot of things but thought this was especially funny. Giving every one of his pitches its own personality should be easy, and he’s not the kind to look too long for words. But he runs his hand through his thick hair and looks down, up, back down, and draws blanks.
“That’s four personalities for four different pitches. Here I am thinking I only have one,” he says.
Somehow Kyle being a four-pitch closer isn’t all too surprising, like just being a relief pitcher doesn’t quite match his eccentricity. Yet the four-pitch persona is one Kyle has had to hold on tight to, with coaches telling him to pick two or three. Zero in on them. Perfect them. Be a real closer whose dimensions are numbered but incredibly hard to solve. But putting unwavering professional aspirations aside, a closer isn’t what Kyle wants to be. That’s why he’s kept all four pitches around — his fastball, naturally, deft changeup, and curveball and slider, both breaking in different ways and at different times — to relieve effectively and keep his goal of starting games alive.
As a closer his arsenal bodes him well. His 23 strikeouts in 17 innings is the most of any Chatham pitcher and ranks eighth in the Cape Cod Baseball League, and helped him earn all Pac-12 honors at the end of his sophomore season at Southern California this past spring. And when he thinks about the four pitches, whether he's using them in one inning or six, he doesn’t praise any one more than another. Kyle’s a deep thinker, and choosing an identity for each one of his pitches starts to seem as important as actually throwing them.
His fastball is laid back because it’s the foundation of both his weaponry and personality, a Garden Grove, Calif., native who personifies the west coast in both step and speech. His slider is scary because he throws it as hard as he can and sometimes has no clue where it’s going to end up. His curveball is funny because that’s how hitters look when they try to hit it. His changeup is sneaky because it’s the pitch no hitter expects a closer to have, and throwing it is like pulling a quarter from behind a kid’s ear. That’s what he decides. Each pitch a part of his personality on and off the mound — two characters in the story of a right arm.
Michelle Bragdon crossed her fingers, mostly metaphorically, that her second son would love something other than baseball. She had seen her husband Pat and first son James devote themselves to a game that never seemed to give back what they put in. Kyle, just 2 years old, liked trucks. He really liked trucks. And she hoped that trucks would be for Kyle as baseball was for everyone else around him.
She should have known better. When he picked up a ball at 3 the next 17 years of his life were all but etched in stone.
“I was really hoping,” Michelle said. “But once he started playing he just fell in love. He loves all sports, not just baseball, but baseball became his love right away. He loved trucks but baseball replaced that.”
Before even playing baseball Kyle developed an unequivocal love for up-to-the-minute information. He liked reading the newspaper for all the box scores with his cereal in the morning — basketball, football, hockey, baseball — always managed to find a television throughout the day and family and friends called him “ESPN.” They didn’t know that the 4-year-old providing news breaks could someday be the subject of one.
When he first started playing baseball he was a shortstop because there are no pitchers in tee-ball. But when there was a chance for him to take the mound he did, like his dad and brother had before him. Pat was a budding high school prospect but gave up the game when James was born. He shifted his focus to his kids and when the time came, developing their arms like he had developed his. Some dads pass down an old bike, a toolset or tips on meetings girls. Pat passed down pitching grips, and taught Kyle both a four-seam fastball and circle change when his son was 6 years old.
As pitchers, Kyle and Pat are mechanically similar with one fundamental difference. Pat threw breaking balls when he was young and his arm paid for it later on. He never let his sons do the same, and it’s paying dividends that neither Kyle or Pat could have foreseen.
“No kid of mine or that I ever coaches was allowed to throw a breaking ball until their arms were very mature,” Pat said. “And there’s a reason why Kyle’s changeup is MLB ready. He has thrown that and relied on that as his out pitch almost his entire life and it has gotten so good as a result.”
Kyle says it plainly and proudly. He has his mom’s height and his dad’s arm — 6 feet, 0 inches, and 90-plus with nothing predictable on the mound. But that’s not all he has from Pat and Michelle, who sit as close as they can to the bullpen and, together, look as content as their son does next to a baseball field.
Michelle’s bubbly personality is Kyle off the field. The Kyle whose favorite movies are shamelessly The Sandlot and The Lion King and tilts his head back to do a cheeky impression of Simba. The Kyle who instead of just signing an autograph after Chatham beat Brewster on July 5, asked a little girl by the dugout where she was from, what she wanted written on the ball and sent her away smiling after saying he liked her pink shirt. The Kyle that brought childhood friend and USC teammate Timmy Robinson to Lighthouse Beach on an off day, and made sure he knew the name of the 20-plus people there and that they knew his name in turn.
“I am so lucky that Kyle is the way he is,” Michelle said. “I know a lot of moms say that but Kyle is really special to me. Just such a good boy and really cares about everyone and everything.”
Kyle doesn’t have his dad’s hulking build or thick facial hair, but they still look alike. They smile the same way and when they’re really interested in something, which happens more often than not and usually involves sport, their eyes light up and their chests hover above their knees. They bond about the Los Angeles area teams and text back-and-forth after every game Kyle plays in. Sometimes it’s “how does your arm feel'” Other times it’s a laundry list of pointers. Most of the time the conversation ends with something like “good job.”
It’s the Pat in Kyle that craves details and tapes every one of Zack Greinke’s starts for the Dodgers. He takes note of every pitch, asking how did he change his delivery with a runner on first' Why did he throw that pitch 2-0' How does he approach a power hitter 0-2' They are the questions Pat asks of him and that others now hear from Kyle, who says that there is something to learn from every pitch in a baseball game.
When he first started at USC he had worked the curveball and slider into his repertoire. He liked the curve the least of his four pitches because it didn’t break like he wanted it to and he often left it high in the zone. It was during a bullpens session that an older teammate suggested he try bending the knuckle of his pointer finger against the seam and the pitch started sharply falling out of the zone.
“I’m a student of the game and I’m always trying to adapt and learn,” Kyle said. “My dad taught me my breaking pitches but he also always taught me that you have to keep working on things to make them work for you. That’s what I did, just kept toying with them to make them fit with everything else.”
Michelle’s magnetism and Pat’s competitiveness boiled down to what could later prove Kyle’s breakthrough moment. Kyle had never started a game for the Trojans, who needed a win against Oregon State, the nation’s top team, to have any shot at making the NCAA tournament. It was the last day of the season and Kyle went to USC head coach Dan Hubbs and told him he wanted the ball after notching a 1.2-inning save two days prior. Hubbs complied and while the Trojans didn’t play into the tournament, Kyle threw a complete game and struck out 14 Beavers in a 3-1 USC win.
Hubbs has already told him that he will continue to close games as a junior next season, but Kyle showed that he fits into more than one box.
“After that game at the end of the year teams know about him,” Pat said, sitting by Veterans Field on Saturday. “We’ve talked to advisers who said that his best bet is probably as a starter or middle reliever. The fact is that he’s not that big, you think of small closers and you think of Sergio Romo and Huston Street. In my opinion, he could start games and he has starter stuff. I mean stuff is stuff.”
Kyle keeps it up during the game, the cocktail conversations turn to nonsensical word games and the makeshift bullpen session into a catch with an NFL-sized football. If his pen mates watch the game just a little too closely, he ties their shoelaces to the fence or lightly places a bubble on the button of their hat. Still preparing, in one way or another.
When Chatham tied Hyannis at 4-4 with an eighth-inning rally, Kyle starts throwing in the bullpen. He is going to enter in a tie game and little did he know he would throw four innings, a make-do start in a relieving role that made him feel at ease.
His warm up is slightly more serious than his pregame self but doesn’t tap into game mode just yet. Even when he jogs from the bullpen and across the third-base line to the mound for the top of the ninth, he’s still jumpy and jovial — the Kyle everyone knows and loves. But when the ball goes around the horn and ends up in his glove his temperament shifts and the game is his.
He repeats the same routine, step by step, that he has since his junior year at Pacifica (Calif.) High School. After getting the ball from the third baseman he faces center field and puts it in his right hand. He moves his glove in front of his mouth and says something, a short phrase, that he’s never repeated to anyone in his life. Then he takes his right cleat and writes something in the dirt behind the rubber, that too a secret. Before looking in he throws both hands out in front of him as if to push the rest of the world away. Now it’s just him, the mound, Nick Collins’ catcher’s mitt and nondescript hitter after nondescript hitter. Three up and three down in the ninth. Four up and three down in the 10th. A one-two-three 11th. A one-two-three 12th.
Suddenly a game that once seemed unpredictable isn’t too hard to define. Kyle isn’t going to give up any runs and it will be up to the Anglers to scratch one run across before the league’s 12-inning limit is reached. His approach is business-like and every inning ends with a slow walk to the dugout, his hat pulled tightly over his head and his body language showing no signs of the player that sauntered about the field for six hours before taking the ball.
In the bottom of the 12th A.J. Murray hits a walk-off home run that Kyle would later say he called before the at-bat, and only once the game’s in hand does he really start smiling again.