BOSTON — A few hours before the Boston Red Sox opened a three-game series Monday night against the Baltimore Orioles, manager John Farrell left no question about which pitcher he trusts most implicitly to start a must-win game.
It’s David Price.
What, you expected someone else?
Farrell had 217 million reasons to configure the rotation so that Price is lined up to start the final game of the season if the Red Sox need a win to clinch a playoff berth or the division title. But principal owner John Henry and president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski have empowered Farrell since spring training to eschew salaries and contracts as a guide for making personnel decisions, and they aren’t about to change that policy now.
So Price had to earn his way into a Game 162 start — or, if the American League East-leading Red Sox have their druthers, Game 1 of the division series. And after three largely miserable months in which he pitched as poorly as he ever has, endured a proportional amount of criticism, brooded after his worst starts and tried to buoy his spirits by tweeting the sort of uplifting quotes that appear in fortune cookies, the $217 million man finally is pitching like the guy the Sox paid so handsomely to get this past offseason.
In his seventh consecutive gem, Price dominated the power-packed Orioles for eight innings of a 12-2 throttling in which he was staked to a 5-0 first-inning lead and David Ortiz tied Mickey Mantle for 17th on the all-time home run list with 536. Price gave up only two hits, and although they were towering solo homers by Chris Davis and Manny Machado, it barely caused the ace lefty to flinch.
“Solo homers don’t beat you,” Price said, a slight smile creeping across his face, “unless you’re in San Fran and you lose 2-1.”
The reference, of course, was to a June 8 start in which Price muted the San Francisco Giants for seven innings before giving up a solo homer to little-known rookie Mac Williamson. And that’s how it went for Price through the first half of the season. He gave up five or more runs in five of his first 16 starts, and when he did pitch well, somebody named Mac Williamson was there to ruin everything.
It all began to turn for Price on July 28 in Anaheim. He blanked the Los Angeles Angels for eight innings of what turned out to be an excrutiating 2-1 loss on Hanley Ramirez‘s throwing error in the ninth inning. And although he melted down in the seventh inning five nights later in Seattle and gave up six runs (three earned) in only five innings on Aug. 7 against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Price seemed to be gaining confidence.
On Aug. 12, Price gave up three runs on 10 hits in eight innings of a 9-4 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks, and that began a stretch of seven consecutive starts in which he has allowed 12 runs on 33 hits in 50 innings for a 2.16 ERA and posted a strikeouts-to-walks ratio of 51-to-8. It’s no wonder Price is 7-0, the longest winning streak of his career.
“The second half of the season, he’s continued to increase his power,” Farrell said. “He’s maintained his direction through the lane in which he’s intending to execute pitches. Tonight he had a wipeout changeup. That’s a put-away pitch. He got a high number of strikes and strikeouts on his changeup. He’s pitching with such conviction right now, and it shows with his body language and the way he’s finished hitters off.”
Considering the expectations that accompanied Price to Boston, his first truly momentous start for the Red Sox was never going to come until October, which has never been his time of year. In fact, the first question of his introductory media conference at Fenway Park in December involved his 0-7 record and 5.27 ERA in eight career postseason starts.
At least now, though, the Sox can say with straight faces that they feel comfortable starting Price in Game 1 of a playoff series or a do-or-die Game 162 of the regular season, so much so that Farrell can justify not going with resurgent 20-game winner Rick Porcello instead.
Toronto Blue Jays (three over Baltimore) with 19 games remaining.
“We’re playing well, for sure,” Price said. “We all have that feeling in the clubhouse, out in that dugout. This is a very close-knit group of guys. It’s why I’m here. I knew the veterans that we had and the young guys that we had and how tight they were in that clubhouse. That’s what you want to be a part of. That’s what makes 162 games plus spring training so much fun. It’s not work. This is all fun.”
For now, at least. The real work is still ahead, but at least Price finally appears to be up for it.