NEW YORK — To hear their only slightly melodramatic manager tell it, the New York Yankees would have been all but finished for the season if they had lost again Sunday night.
Lucky for them, then, Boston Red Sox ace David Price was unable to finish hitters.
Price pitched OK, which is to say he kept the game from spiraling out of control in the Yankees’ three-run fourth inning. But the Red Sox didn’t plunk down $217 million in December for Price to pitch only OK, especially when a performance more typical of a No. 1 starter might have beaten the mediocre Yankees in what New York manager Joe Girardi described as “probably as important [a] game that we’ve had in July in a long time.”
Instead, Price gave up four two-out hits, struck out only one batter for just the eighth time in his career, lasted only 5⅔ innings and lost 3-1 to prevent the Red Sox from completing a three-game sweep at Yankee Stadium.
“Even when I was ahead [in the count], I couldn’t execute whatever pitch I was throwing to get an out,” Price said. “That’s tough. You guys are tired of hearing it, and I’m tired of saying it: I’ve got to execute.”
Last season, Price’s teams — the Detroit Tigers until July 31, and the Toronto Blue Jays thereafter — went 24-8 in games in which he started. In 2014, the Tigers and Tampa Bay Rays went 20-14 in Price’s starts. The Red Sox are only 11-9 with Price on the mound. He has lost to ace counterparts Madison Bumgarner of the San Francisco Giants (June 8), Chris Tillman of the Baltimore Orioles (June 14) and now the Yankees’ Masahiro Tanaka, while outdueling only one fellow No. 1 starter, the Cleveland Indians’ Corey Kluber on Opening Day.
In fairness, Price didn’t have much support against the Yankees. Dustin Pedroia homered against Tanaka in the first inning, but the Red Sox mustered only two more hits, none against the vaunted bullpen troika of Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman.
But in what amounted to the biggest at-bat in a close game, Price didn’t have the stuff to put away Starlin Castro with one on and one out in the fourth inning. After getting down two strikes, Castro fouled off a fastball and a cutter, laid off a changeup in the dirt and lined a changeup to left field for a game-tying RBI double. Then, after striking out Rob Refsnyder, Price gave up an RBI single to No. 9-hitting Austin Romine, a single to Brett Gardner and an RBI single to Jacoby Ellsbury.
“The finishing pitch might not have been there, as it was the last few times out,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said.
It’s true. Price had struck out 10 batters in each of his past three starts and entered the game leading the American League with 140 strikeouts.
The problem against the Yankees, at least according to Price, was not being able to put his fastball where he wanted it against right-handed hitters. But lefties feasted on Price too. Gardner, Ellsbury and Didi Gregorius notched two hits apiece, with those six hits tying a career high allowed by Price against left-handed hitters.
“My fastball in to righties, I didn’t throw a good one the entire game,” Price said. “The 100-plus pitches, I didn’t throw a good fastball in to a righty the entire day. Whenever I don’t command that pitch on that side of the plate, that’s when it causes a lot of problems for myself.”
Of course, one victory doesn’t solve the 45-46 Yankees’ myriad problems or uncloud their buy-or-sell quandary as the trade deadline nears. And Farrell was perfectly content to leave the Bronx with the Red Sox having won another series to stay within two games of the division-leading Orioles.
But an undercurrent of unease about their ace followed the Red Sox out of town. More than halfway through the season, Price has a 4.36 ERA, only 30th among the 46 pitchers with enough innings to qualify for the AL ERA title. He has a 3.25 mark in his past 13 starts and allowed three or fewer runs in 11 of those outings.
It’s hardly horrible, but it’s also not up to expectations for a pitcher of Price’s caliber.
“We’d won six in a row, I’d heard, our longest winning streak of the year,” Price said. “To be the guy that goes up there and doesn’t help us win that seventh one, that’s tough.”
It’s also a little too familiar.