Seven weeks after his last start — and seven yearssince his last regular-season relief appearance — David Price came out of the bullpen here Sunday and tossed two perfect innings for the Boston Red Sox.
“That,” said his manager, John Farrell, “was even more than personally anticipated.”
Indeed, Price’s performance — six up, six down against the meat of the Tampa Bay Rays‘ order on 21 pitches, including a few curveballs, late in a one-run game — was enough to brighten the Red Sox’s collective mood after they lost 3-2 and wasted a chance to add another game to their American League East lead. If Price can deliver like this as a reliever, he could be a difference-making playoff weapon.
But to hear Price tell it, he’s capable of more.
Not better. Just more.
If Farrell, Red Sox pitching coach Carl Willis and even Tampa Bay hitters were slack-jawed by Price’s feel for four pitches and spot-on control after a seven-week layoff because of soreness in his left elbow and triceps, Price reacted with something between a yawn and a shrug.
“Done this for a long time,” he said. “My last bullpens, my last live [batting practice sessions] were really good. That mound is still 60 feet, 6 inches away from home plate. I wasn’t surprised.”
In keeping with his strained relationship with the Boston media, Price gave mostly curt answers to questions about his effective use of off-speed pitches, his preparation for his new role and how his experience as a reliever as a rookie for the Rays late in the 2008 season might help him now.
Left unsaid, though perfectly clear, was this: While Price went along with the Red Sox’s decision last week to put him in the bullpen for the rest of the season, he didn’t necessarily agree with it.
And what if Price was right?
Farrell and Willis came to the reasonable conclusion that the two weeks left in the regular season isn’t enough time for Price to rebuild the arm strength required of a starter. Not after being sidelined for seven weeks, and certainly not after everything he has gone through health-wise since spring training, including an elbow tear and two stints on the disabled list.
Price made only two minor league starts in May before joining the Red Sox’s rotation on Memorial Day in Chicago. But at least he got stretched out to 89 pitches, a suitable total for a starter. This time, with the minor league season over, he threw a total of five innings in two simulated games at Fenway Park, uncorking 32 pitches on Sept. 9 and 47 pitches four days later, at which point the Sox decided to activate him from the DL and put him in the bullpen for the rest of the season.
“I knew I wanted to start, but I didn’t map [the calendar] out in my head or anything,” Price said. “I’ll do whatever.”
Even if Price had pitched one more simulated game, it’s doubtful he could have gotten beyond four innings or about 60 pitches. And while there would have been time for him to simulate another start after that, the Red Sox wanted him to face opposing hitters in an actual game before using him in the postseason.
There’s also the matter of Price’s playoff track record as a starter. By putting him in the bullpen, the Sox won’t force him to put his 0-8 record and 5.74 ERA in nine career postseason starts on the line against the Houston Astros or Cleveland Indians with arm strength that likely would be compromised.
Makes sense, right?
Sure. But that was all before what Price did Sunday.
He entered in the seventh inning with the Sox trailing by one run and faced down the middle of the Rays’ order on seven pitches. He got Peter Bourjos to line out to center field on the first pitch, then struck out Evan Longoria and got Lucas Duda to ground weakly to first. In the eighth inning, Price struck out Adeiny Hechavarria, got Trevor Plouffe to pop out and induced a groundout from Brad Miller.
Price’s fastball touched 95 mph, but he threw only nine heaters. He mixed in his cutter, changeup and even his curveball, a pitch that he didn’t incorporate into his bullpen sessions until later.
“From the power to the touch and feel, I’m amazed that someone can pitch — hasn’t pitched in a game in seven weeks — come out with that kind of command and throw three, four pitches for strikes,” Farrell said. “He’s a unique pitcher and that was really a strong two innings of work.”
Two innings represent only a peek for a starter. As a reliever, it was sheer dominance. But if two innings could become three and three could become four, would Price be more valuable to the Red Sox in October as even a four- or five-inning starter?
If you saw what Price did Sunday, it’s at least worth pondering.
“Just to be able to try and help us win at this point in the season is what you want to be able to do,” Price said. “It’s good to be back out there.”
In any capacity, the Red Sox will take what Price gave them Sunday.