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Mighty Matt Davidson

The kid needed a ride to the ballpark on a Sunday morning last September, so my brother-in-law, Bill, a weekend Uber driver, picked him up at his downtown high-rise apartment building east of Michigan Avenue.

Later he texted me this photo asking if I knew this guy.

"Sure," I answered. "That's Matt Davidson. Plays for the Sox. Why do you ask?"

Matt Davidson.jpg

Turns out that Bill, a Cub batboy in the mid-50s, conversed with the White Sox designated hitter-third baseman all the way to 35th Street, including a question about what kind of pitching Davidson finds toughest to hit.

"Changing speeds," was the response.

Evidently three Kansas City hurlers weren't familiar with the scouting report last Thursday as Davidson made national headlines by becoming just the fourth player in history to hit three home runs on Opening Day.

The first one came off Royals' starter Danny Duffy, in the top of the fourth with the bases empty on a fastball that narrowed the Kansas City lead to 4-2. The next inning, he hit another solo shot on a fastball from Blaine Boyer, as the Sox surged ahead 6-4. In the eighth, he completed the hat trick with a three-run laser to left on what appeared to be a slider from lefty Brian Flynn that broke right over the plate, giving the Sox a more-than-comfortable 11-4 advantage en route to the 14-7 victory.

Coupled with two dingers from shortstop Tim Anderson and another one from Jose Abreu, Ricky Renteria's outfit tied a MLB record set by the Mets in 1988 of six Opening Day round-trippers.

Davidson joined Toronto's George Bell (1988), Detroit's Dmitri Young (2005), and the Cubs' Tuffy Rhodes (1994) as the only players ever to homer three times on Opening Day.

(Rhodes was emblematic of those pre-Theo Cubs: Despite his heroics, the Cubs still dropped a 12-8 decision to the Mets in that opener 24 years ago. He then hit just five more homers the remainder of that season and soon was out of the major leagues. Remarkably, though, he resurfaced in Japan in 1996 and began a 13-year career there where he hit 464 home runs - including 55 in 2001, which tied him with the legendary Sadaharu Oh for the all-time Japanese single-season league record.)

Davidson is no Rhodes; barring injury, Matt will hit appreciably more than five home runs the rest of this season. Last year he accounted for 26 dingers in his first full year in the major leagues.

The path to being a regular on the South Side has not been an easy one for the 27-year-old native of Yucaipa, California, a town of 58,000 in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains about 80 miles east of Los Angeles.

Drafted in the first round (35th overall) out of high school by the Diamondbacks in 2009, Davidson was a run-producer in the minor leagues, driving in as many 106 one year at Class A and consistently hitting around 20 home runs per campaign. He also struck out with great regularity - 24 times in his first 76 major league at-bats in 2013. Prior to the 2014 season, the D'backs dealt him to the Sox for closer Addison Reed.

The trade initially looked like a bust for the White Sox as Davidson struggled mightily in the minors in 2014 and '15, hitting .199 and .203, respectively, and fanning a total of 355 times despite accounting for 43 home runs those two years.

However, Davidson's situation took a turn upward in 2016 at Charlotte when his batting average rose to .268 while the power numbers continued at their previous level. He earned a promotion to the big club at the end of June, and then-manager Robin Ventura immediately inserted him into the starting lineup as designated hitter.

Just as quickly, Matt's aspirations once again were dashed. In his second at-bat, he singled and advanced to third on a double by long-forgotten J.B. Shuck. Trouble was, Davidson awkwardly hit second base, breaking his foot and ending his season.

"There were times in '14 and '15 where I definitely thought I was done," Davidson told MLB Central on Friday. "Once you've had that failure, it's always kind of in your head . . . because you've been there."

Last season, Davidson returned to play in 118 games for the White Sox. He credits manager Ricky Renteria's philosophy of concentrating on the present with helping him maintain his confidence.

"Trying to get rid of that [negative thinking] and not pulling it along but just trying to let it go and live in the present . . . is something Ricky preaches," said Davidson. "I just focus on the routine every day and staying right there. I think everything will take care of itself. It's something we're all trying to do on the South Side."

One might surmise that Opening Day starter James Shields and Saturday's pitcher Lucas Giolito also benefited from that kind of approach. In the interest of kindness, let's just say that both were out of sorts at the outset of the team's first two games.

Shields had a shocking first inning. Four batters into his outing, he trailed 4-0. That's as bad as it can be. He retired the next two hitters before Alex Gordon doubled. Certainly the Sox were poised to lose the first of what some pundits predict will be losses north of 90.

Not so fast. Big Game James rebounded almost beyond belief, lasting six innings while yielding nary a hit the remainder of his afternoon. He got the win.

Giolito came out Saturday without his usual command and limped through five innings, allowing three runs, four hits and as many bases on balls. Lucas is a strikeout pitcher, but he fanned just one batter in his season's debut.

Nevertheless, Giolito kept the Sox in the game so that Yoan Moncada's line drive home run to right center leading off the eighth inning cut the Sox deficit to 3-2. Avisail Garcia's single and a walk to Davidson set the stage for newly-acquired catcher Welington Castillo to blast a 3-0 pitch off the right field wall, giving the Sox their eventual 4-3 come-from-behind win.

Two other aspects worth mentioning are the two walks Davidson drew over the weekend. Last season he walked just 18 times, accounting for a meager .260 on-base percentage. In addition, relievers Danny Farquhar, Nate Jones and Joakim Soria kept the Royals in check over the final three innings. If this is any kind of preview of the quality of the bullpen, forgive us if our eyebrows just rose a few inches.

Winter weather postponed Sunday's contest as the Sox boarded their plane for Toronto, where they'll engage the Blue Jays in three games before their home opener at the Grate on Thursday against the Tigers.

Clearly, we've just tip-toed into the season, but what fun the first two games were. The Davidson story, well, makes us feel good. Way to go, Matt. And, by the way, if and when you become an established big league ballplayer making millions of dollars over a number of seasons, take an Uber every now and then. It's a nice touch.

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Former Bill Veeck bar buddy Roger Wallenstein is our White Sox correspondent. He welcomes your comments.

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