Injury perhaps a blessing for maturing Price
Since returning from disabled list, Rays ace showing improved focus
ST. PETERSBURG -- This was supposed to be about how David Price has been lights-out for Tampa Bay since he returned from the disabled list on July 2.
But after five so-so innings Wednesday night, the Seattle Mariners were up, 4-1, and, frankly, they were the ones turning off the lights against the lefty.
And then the Rays, who'd lost six straight and dropped four games behind AL East leader Boston, awoke.
Price was no longer in the game and on the hook for a loss when they stormed from behind in the ninth inning, scored two runs, and wobbled off the field with a giddy 5-4 victory at Tropicana Field.
Unheralded outfielders Jason Bourgeois, who was called up from the Minors just eight days ago, lofted a bases-loaded fly to right field that dropped for a single, the winning run scored and the Rays' longest losing streak since 2011 was history.
With the Red Sox losing, 4-3, to Toronto in 10 innings, the late-inning heroics allowed the Rays to whittle a game off Boston's lead, cutting it to three.
Price, who allowed five hits during his seven innings, escaped with his third straight no-decision.
All said and done, this is about Price.
Admittedly, he wasn't at his best. At least not the virtually unbeatable form he's flashed since July 2.
But if the Rays are going to make a run at the Red Sox, it is going to take performances from their ace like Wednesday night's.
"There were a couple of bad moments, but you saw him take a breath, gather himself and prevent more [runs]," said manager Joe Maddon. "I thought he was fantastic. I've spoken a lot about his focus, which I think has gotten a lot better. I could see him gathering himself, stepping back and making good pitches."
Price, who threw 117 pitches, had just two bad innings. The Mariners manufactured a run in the first when, with two out, Kyle Seager was hit by a pitch, stole second, went to third on a wild pitch and scored on Kendrys Morales' single.
After retiring 12 batters in a row, a two-out walk to Dustin Ackley, a .233 hitter, ignited Seattle's three-run fifth.
"If David could have had one moment back, it would have been not to walk Ackley," said Maddon. "He probably would have pitched at least eight innings, maybe a complete game, had he not walked Ackley."
Price would love to have the first and fifth innings back, but ultimately keeping his composure during and after those two blemishes was important.
If Price's ability to stay focused was important, so too was the manner in which the slumping Rays rallied.
"If we go out there and win, 1-0, I throw the ball extremely well, hitters probably don't feel as confident as they do right now," he said. "Honestly, our team winning is the biggest thing right now. Our offense hasn't given up all year long. They've continued to put at-bats together late in the game, and that's what they did tonight."
As for walking Ackley, Price agreed with his skipper.
"Two-out walks is something you want to stay away from," he said. "The last 10 days when I've gotten two outs it's almost been a struggle. I have to keep that focus. I now have [Jose] Molina pointing to his head whenever I get to two outs to make sure I maintain that focus, make sure I make a pitch and not go for a strikeout, just an out."
It's all about the maturing of Price, who turns 28 on Aug. 26.
This may come as a shock, but Maddon believes when Price went down on May 16 it just might have been a positive -- for the Rays and the 2012 AL Cy Young Award winner himself.
Even during his Cy Young season, he has not pitched as well as he has since coming back on July 2. He was 5-1 with a 1.68 ERA in July and before Wednesday night had a 1.40 ERA since returning to go with three complete games.
He allowed as many earned runs in the fifth inning against the Mariners as he has over his four previous starts.
Maddon says the left-hander's time away nursing a triceps strain was in a sense a wake-up call.
"It's the first time the game was taken away from him," said the manager. "It probably caused a lot of introspection. He looked back at what happened before the injury and what had happened the year before. I think he just processed everything properly."
Price pitched like he was in quicksand before he was injured. He looked anything but a Cy Young Award winner -- a struggling four losses in five decisions and a 5.24 earned run average. Opposing batters were hitting .294 against him.
"Coming off the previous season after winning the award there were a lot of distractions," said Maddon. "Everything was just off a little bit and he finally gets hurt, which he'd never been before.
"During that moment of being injured you have time to reflect on a lot of things you never thought of before. It's like you can't truly understand what it's truly like to be a parent until you have a kid. You can't really understand what it's like to be hurt until you've been hurt. People can talk about it, but until you actually go through it you don't know how you'll react."
To that, Maddon thinks "in a perverse way it was a good thing. At the time it happened, of course, it looked like the worst thing, that it was going to set us back. In another way, it was a very positive thing."
He pounds the strike zone and has leaned on his changeup since coming back from the DL, throwing it an average of 20.3 percent of the time, compared to 12.7 in the nine starts prior to injury.
Even Wednesday night, only a few times did he not throw first-pitch strikes to Mariners hitters.
Maybe a nifty low-hit, complete-game victory would have been vintage David Price.
But as the Rays take aim on the postseason and possibly the division title, gritty performances will be just as important.
Especially from David Price.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.