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As Orioles, Chris Davis search for answers, struggling slugger gets a day off to reset

As Chris Davis’ season-long struggles at the plate continued to spiral, the short-term solution Friday night was one the Orioles tried previously, giving the first baseman a day off to serve as a mental reset.

Manager Buck Showalter has shuffled Davis in the batting order, but only opportunities to lower Davis seem to follow. While Showalter said sitting Davis on Friday night in Toronto against J.A. Happ was merely giving him a day off against a left-handed starter — Davis started against Happ on April 9 in Baltimore — even the manager acknowledged the suggestion that the Orioles have begun to exhaust their attempts to help Davis find his way at the plate.

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“That’s fair to say, but what do you do? Quit?” Showalter said. “We push every day. Chris pushes every day and we keep trying to find the solution to the challenges he’s had. Nobody has to remind him or use that it’s been tough sledding for him for a while now. It’s very frustrating because we all know what he’s capable of, but he hasn’t been able to do that for an extended period of time.”

Dropped to the seventh spot in the lineup for the sixth time this season, Davis went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts in the Orioles’ 5-4 extra-inning loss to the Blue Jays on Thursday at Rogers Centre. Two of those strikeouts against Toronto left-hander Jaime García killed potential Orioles rallies. He stranded two runners on in the fourth and left the bases loaded in the sixth. It didn’t seem to hurt the Orioles when they took a 4-1 lead into the ninth inning, but after reliever Brad Brach blew that lead, and the Orioles lost in the 10th, the wasted scoring opportunities stung.

“It’s frustrating no matter where I hit in the lineup to be honest,” Davis said before Friday’s game. “I expect to be up in those situations and I expect to produce in those situations whether I’m hitting seventh or I’m hitting fourth. So it’s obviously frustrating, especially in a game where we needed those runs. We had a young guy out there on the mound (David Hess) who was pitching really well. It’s frustrating because it’s been kind of a theme of the season for me so far. But you continue to work, continue to get your cage work, get a feeling. That’s kind of where I’m [at with it], and hope you have some success. Just want to keep working.”

Davis, 32, has hit all over the Orioles batting order, everywhere from fourth to seventh after a season-opening test run in the leadoff spot. On Thursday, he had two big opportunities to break a 1-1 tie, but struck out both times.

“If you have thoughts of something [improving] and he has a good game and that’s going to be the start of an extended period of that, you try to go for it,” Showalter said. “You’re always trying to put your best foot forward and sometimes him struggling the way he is, it’s not necessarily with him in the lineup. It’s been a tough thing to massage, but we still hope he will catch fire. And people might say, ‘What gives you hope?’ And I think [it’s that] Chris keeps pushing. He hasn’t stopped trying. He’s tried everything and we’ll continue to try to find a way.”

With the five base runners he stranded Thursday, Davis has had 116 runners on base in his 220 plate appearances, but he’s scored only 11 of those runners. That’s just 9.5 percent of base runners being driven in. Davis also has just eight extra-base hits this season (four doubles and four homers).

Like Thursday, most of those struggles have come with two outs, which makes sense because he’s spent most of the season hitting in the middle of the order.

Davis has had 47 plate appearances with runners on base and two outs — and 69 runners have been on base in those appearances – but he has just six hits in those situations. Take away the three-run homer he hit with two on and two out May 9 against Kansas City Royals, and he’s driven in just three runs with runners on base and two outs.

With runners in scoring position and two outs, Davis is hitting just .129, going 4-for-31 in those situations. In situations defined as “late or close” by Baseball Reference, meaning plate appearances in the seventh inning or later with the batting team tied, ahead by one or the tying run at least on deck, Davis is 1-for-30 with 14 strikeouts.

That was on full display in Thursday’s loss.

In the fourth inning Thursday, Davis had two on with two outs, but struck out on five pitches. He fell behind looking at called strike one on a fastball, then fouled off three straight sliders before swinging through a fourth to strand two base runners.

Davis stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs in the sixth. After singles by Manny Machado and Mark Trumbo, García fell behind Jonathan Schoop and intentionally walked him, putting two runners in scoring position.

García then threw Davis six straight two-seamers, the first two low that allowed Davis to get ahead 2-0. Davis was ahead in the count 3-1, watched a called strike two and then swung through a pitch at the bottom of the zone to strand the bases loaded.

“There wasn’t a whole lot to take out of those three at-bats,” Davis said. “I hadn’t seen a lot of [García], so there wasn’t a whole lot for me to go off of. But in the last one, I think he just threw a good pitch. I thought it was a pitch I could do something with, and obviously at 3-2 I have to swing at anything close. But he threw a tough pitch.

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“That’s kind of the way it’s going right now. Even when I’m getting good pitches to hit, a lot of times if I put the ball in play, they’re leading to nothing. The ball I hit in New York [earlier this week], I think that Jay Bruce slid on the warning track and caught, I just don’t know how many times I’ve seen that this year, a line drive that guys find a way to make a play on. Just continue to grind. It’s the only thing I know how to do. Continue to work, try to stay positive and do what I can to try to pick somebody up on defense.”

After Thursday’s game, Davis’ season average dropped to .152, and his .232 slugging percentage is equal to his .232 on-base percentage — this from a slugger who has been one of the most prolific power hitters over the past seven seasons. His 227 homers since the beginning of the 2012 season entered Friday third most in the majors.

Davis acknowledged earlier this season that he’s carried the expectations of the club-record, seven-year, $161 million contract he signed before the 2016 season onto the field with him. Davis has been a 1.3-win player since signing the deal. But he also knows he’s struggled before, including times before his megadeal, and found his way through it.

“It’s all the same to be honest with you, no matter whether you’re a 10-year player or a 10-day player,” Davis said. “It’s just part of it. You have to go out there and do your job. You have to go out there and focus on the things that are right in front of you, and if you can’t do that, obviously you’re going to have some struggles at this level.

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“I’ve had stints in the past where I’ve really struggled at the plate. I’ve had years where it felt like the whole year I was struggling. It’s not to say I’ve gotten used to the noise, but that’s been a part of the job. There’s a lot of negativity surrounding guys who struggle, losing ballclubs. People want to see a show when they come to the park. You continue to try to block it out and try to focus to be positive about it and just continue to work. That’s really just all I know how to do.”

Davis can’t be sent to the minors to work out his problems without his permission, and he’s signed for four seasons after this one. So for now, the Orioles continue to grasp for any attempt to get Davis going again.

And on Friday, it was another day off.

“We’ve tried it multiple times, but most of the time at this level it’s a mental or emotional day off more than anything,” Showalter said. “Nothing would take the place of a good Chris Davis and what he’s capable of doing. We’ve missed that in his lineup. He’s not the only one. We’ve had some other people struggling. … You’ve got two or three spots where we’re not getting much out of. It’s a challenge, but Chris isn’t the only one.”

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