With the bases loaded in the sixth inning, Braxton Davidson swung at a pitch low in the strike zone and blasted it off the scoreboard above right field.
It was the first grand slam in the Mudcats 6-foot-2, 230-pound left fielder’s professional career.
The Asheville native’s parents were at Five County Stadium for the July 17 game and recorded it on video.
“It was a pretty special moment,” Davidson said the day after the game.
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The blast was a bright spot in an up-and-down career through the minor leagues so far for Davidson.
The 2014 first-round pick of the Atlanta Braves, drafted as a power hitter after a robust tenure at TC Roberson High in Asheville, has progressed to the Advanced-A level but hasn’t fully lived up to expectations along the way.
In the heat of summer with the Mudcats, however, Davidson, 20, has started to find his hitting rhythm – and a strong desire to shake off the growing pressure.
“Obviously with the first-round name under your name, they want you to succeed, and I feel like I’ve lived through the pressure throughout my whole life,” he said. “I’m trying to just be consistent and prove that I am a worthy first-round pick.”
Five years before being assigned to the Mudcats for the 2016 season, Davidson had already played two games in the confines of Five County Stadium.
During the 2011 NCHSAA 4A baseball championship series in Zebulon, the then-high school freshman and his TC Roberson team were swept in consecutive games by Holly Springs and future Chicago White Sox pitcher Carlos Rodon.
Davidson had received insider information about the Mudcats from his mentor growing up, as well. Detroit Tigers outfielder Cameron Maybin, one of two other first-round picks out of TC Roberson in the past 11 years, played 108 games for Carolina in 2008 and told Davidson “all about them.”
And the southeastern locations of the Braves’ minor-league affiliates (the others are in Georgia, Mississippi, Florida and Virginia) had influenced Davidson’s original decision to forgo a North Carolina baseball commitment and sign with the organization at age 18.
“I feel like it was a better opportunity to go right out of high school rather than go to college and possibly get hurt or not do as good,” said Davidson, noting he had grown up watching the Braves’ regional TV broadcasts.
Nevertheless, Davidson’s youth and inexperience have made his learning curve especially steep, and his performance so far shows a mixed bag of skill and erraticism.
Searching for consistency
With Single-A Rome (Ga.) last season, Davidson hit .242 with 10 home runs in 124 appearances, but was promoted nonetheless to Carolina this season.
His basic hitting numbers have continued to be respectable but unremarkable: .228 batting average, nine home runs in 90 games for the Mudcats as of Friday. Davidson also has the unusual distinction of being one of the Carolina League leaders in both drawing walks (14.0 percent of his at-bats) and striking out (33.1 percent of his at-bats).
“I know it’s there. I know my ability and what I can do,” Davidson said. “I show spurts of good stuff here and there. Being more consistent with it throughout the year is really what I’ve got to work on.”
Mudcats manager Rocket Wheeler attributes that hitting disparity to Davidson’s combination of a high baseball IQ and limited experience.
“Sometimes he gets overzealous and he wants to hit, but then there’s times where he’s going, ‘If it isn’t there, then I’m not swinging,’ so he’ll take his walks,” Wheeler said. “And that’s the youth in him – he knows the strike zone pretty good, but sometimes he gets too antsy up there.”
When Davidson does make contact, however, he’s shown an excellent ability to spread the ball around the field. Although seven of his nine home runs this season were to right, Davidson’s base hits and flyouts are well-distributed across the entire outfield, preventing defenses from focusing on a specific area to cover against him.
Davidson attributes that to his quick swing and capacity to identify fastballs, and Mudcats hitting coach Carlos Mendez said that, with Davidson’s skill in mind, he’s encouraged the 20-year-old to try to swing more often.
“He’s able to use the opposite gap for power, able to hit (pitches) inside, so that can make him a very good player,” Mendez said. “We tell him to be aggressive, to go out there looking to do damage and not worry so much about where the location of the pitch is.”
And there have been encouraging signs lately that Mendez’s advice is making a difference.
Hitting either third or fourth in the lineup throughout July, six of Davidson’s nine home runs this season have come since June 23 and he has hit safely in five of his last seven appearances.
‘Needs some time’
Even in the relative obscurity of Advanced-A baseball, the spotlight of scrutiny still shines on Davidson.
MLB.com dropped him from eighth in the Braves’ 2014 prospect rankings to 13th this year, and SB Nation’s John Sickels, in ranking Davidson 14th, lamented his “little growth in production since last year.”
But Davidson, who was a teenager until June 18, remains significantly younger than most of his competition: the average age in the Carolina League is about 23. Davidson is the youngest player on the Mudcats’ roster by more than a year.
“Being on the road ever since I was 17, 18 years old, I’ve matured a lot mentally and physically,” Davidson said. “It’s pretty special to be able to do what I do at the age that I am.”
He’s been able to glean input from a handful of his childhood heroes – such as retired former Braves Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones and Fred McGriff – and play in four different minor leagues over the past 26 months.
That is valuable experience that Wheeler thinks will eventually pay off for the former first-round pick.
“When he’s playing with older guys – guys that command their pitches a bit better, have better breaking balls and better fastballs – it gives him the opportunity to learn to adjust,” Wheeler said. “He’s just a young kid that needs some time, and once he gets that time, he has a chance to become a really good player.”
Davidson’s grand slam July 17, moreover, might have been the biggest highlight of his career to date.
He did it against Baltimore Orioles’ eighth-ranked prospect Tanner Scott, who consistently throws in the 96 to 99 MPH range. Davidson said Scott’s pitch tested the quick swing he’s worked on lately – and it certainly passed the test.
“I’m still young ... I’ve still got a lot of time left,” Davidson said emphatically. “Guys are writing me off already, it is what it is, but I’ve still got time.”