Settling in for last night’s tie-breaker between the Tampa Bay Rays and Texas Rangers, I think I was running on inertia. This was an important game, the extra game tagged on to the regular season to see which of these two teams would advance to the other one-game playoff to see who had the right to enter the actual playoffs.
There’s a fatigue with all this, and early in the game, I wasn’t feeling too excited. David Price was on the mound for the Rays, Martin Perez for Texas, and neither seemed to really have it early on. But that changed, and as the game went on, Price got better. He found his command, he kept the Rangers off-balanced and, 118 pitches later, he got Nelson Cruz to ground out for the last out of the game. Texas goes home for the winter, and the Rays play on.
Price reminds me of the best pitchers from when I was a kid. And it’s not because of the impressive numbers or the awards, and it’s not necessarily the Hall of Famers I think of. But guys like Dave Stewart and Frank Viola and David Cone and Ken Hill, pitchers were rock-solid starters who could work past any physical limitations they might’ve felt to win games. Some of their windows closed faster than the others; Hill was only an ace for a couple of seasons, Cone was one of the league’s best for a decade, etc.
Maybe it’s Stewart I think of most, the A’s ace through their entire window of Bash-driven greatness, who later went on to solidify the Blue Jays’ rotation for the second World Series win in 1993. Growing up a Red Sox fan gave me plenty of opportunity to see Stewart dominate in the playoffs, and he was an early reminder that pitching counts, and when certain guys get the ball, there’s not much that can be done.
Watching Price last night felt like that. I hadn’t realized he had such a weak track record against the Rangers (he’s 0-3 against them thanks to losses in 2010 and ’11), but that knowledge of past failure added a layer of greatness to the performance. Add in Pedro Martinez’s breakdown of his delivery after the game, which confirmed that Price was battling through something and pitching without his top-shelf stuff. Martinez noted that early in the game, Price was “recoiling,” meaning he was sort of snapping back after his delivery and not following through the way he should. But a couple of key pickoffs and a determination to pitch in the zone worked to his advantage.
There were hiccups. Price struggled with his command in the early innings, but only surrendered one walk. Alex Rios, who was one of a few Rangers who’ve had Price’s number, doubled to left in the sixth inning to bring home a second run, but other than that and an Ian Kinsler single to bring home Craig Gentry, Texas couldn’t muster much.
And for that reason, Joe Maddon let Price finish what he started. It can’t be overstated how important pitching a complete game on the 163rd game of the season can be. With the Rays having to travel to Cleveland now for the Wild Card game, Price gives Tampa a fully loaded bullpen and a fighting chance against Terry Francona’s resurgent bunch. And if they win that, Price could be back on the mound no later than Game 2 of the Division Series.
He’s eligible for arbitration, and there’s a decent chance he’s done in Tampa Bay after their season ends. But in the meantime, he’s piling up innings and doing what he can to keep opponents off the board.
Basically, he’s giving the Rays a shot. He’s an ace, and that’s his job.