Blossoming Ace David Price Only Scratching Surface of Potential
"I'm set on bigger goals than that," he said after holding the Red Sox to two hits in six innings in the Rays' 14-5 romp at Fenway Park.
And Tampa Bay has bigger things in mind for him.
"What's going to really interesting is when he gets good," Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey told FanHouse. "Not gets good, because he's good now, but when he gets as good as he can be. It's going to be really, really fun.
"He's really, really good, but he can be really, really better. I'm not exaggerating."
Think about that. Price started the All-Star Game for the AL and is 17-6, setting a franchise record for wins, with a 2.87 ERA. He ranks second in the American League in wins and fourth in ERA. Presumably, he will be the Rays' No. 1 starter in the Division Series.
Yet those who know him say much more is coming.
"He shoulders a lot of responsibility already," manager Joe Maddon said. "A driven athlete with a high skill level, that's a nice combination."
Two years ago in the postseason, Price became a weapon out of the Rays bullpen -- a live arm other teams had hardly seen, a la Francisco Rodriguez in 2002 or, maybe, Aroldis Chapman this year.
Now Price gives Tampa Bay something even more important in the playoffs: the kind of pitcher who can match up with a CC Sabathia or Cliff Lee.
Price turned 25 on Aug. 26, so for the first game of the American League Division Series, he will be 25 years, 41 days old.
No team with the leeway to set its postseason rotation has chosen a pitcher that young to start its first playoff game since the 2003 Marlins tabbed Josh Beckett in their NLDS opener. No pitcher that young has started and won his team's first postseason game since Gary Nolan of the 1970 Reds, against the Pirates in the NLCS.
"At this point, David is pitching like a No. 1," Maddon said. "Any time David pitches, we feel like we have got a great opportunity to win, I don't care who's pitching for the other side. And a big part of that is, obviously, when a very good pitcher goes up against another one, it's about 2-1 games and 3-2 games and possibly even 1-0 games. So David's definitely capable of carrying you through a real low-scoring game and keeping you on the proper side of it."
That's the type of pitcher you want in Game 1 of a playoff series.
For his part, Price welcomes the "ace" tag.
"Why not?" he said. "I feel good. It's not something that I would shy away from. It's definitely something that I would want, for sure."
An attitude like that is part of being a No. 1 pitcher.
"Mentally, he's a No. 1 with an exclamation point," Maddon said. "Physically, he's got to grow into that."
Price was the top overall pick in the 2007 draft out of Vanderbilt and burst on the scene in the 2008 postseason, not long after his mid-September big-league debut.
He opened last year in the minors, to limit his innings and allow him to work on a changeup, and in 23 major league starts went 10-7 with a 4.42 ERA.
So why the quantum leap this season?
"Consistency," Price said. "I feel like that's the biggest key for a pitcher, that's been the biggest key for me this year, is consistency."
There are specific reasons too.
Price moved closer to the third-base side of the rubber. He found a between-starts routine that works. A fastball/slider pitcher last year, he got his curve to the point where it has overtaken the slider as his second pitch, while continuing to work on the changeup and incorporating a sinker. And he has improved his control.
"One of the reasons that he is as successful as he is, is because of his aptitude," Hickey said. "This is one of the reasons he's been able to take these four, five, six things and within a calendar year's time, really, make them all usable."
The command has come on strong recently.
In Price's first 23 starts, he threw 64 percent strikes. Then on Aug. 21 at Oakland, he toiled through a hard-luck, 43-pitch first inning.
To stay in the game, he used just 55 pitches over the next five innings, 43 of them strikes. Combine that with two starts since, and in his past 26 innings, Price has thrown 251 strikes and 112 balls, or 69 percent strikes.
"His overall command has gotten better, of all of his pitches," Maddon said.
He allowed two runs in Tuesday's first inning, but one was unearned and both scored on a double off the Green Monster that would have been a fly out in any other park. After that hit, he retired 15 of the next 17 batters he faced.
"He's done a nice job of inventing himself on the major-league level," Maddon said.
"That's just who he is. He's going to keep figuring it out. He will not be denied."