ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — David Price’s second season is two starts old. If there is such a thing as a demarcation moment in baseball, the Tampa Bay Rays’ ace left-hander lived it when he took the mound last Tuesday in Houston to return from a 47-day disabled list stint.
No team with playoff visions, of course, wants to be without a star for any amount of time, let alone a significant window. But in this regard, Price could be proven correct: The strained left triceps, sustained May 15 against the Boston Red Sox at Tropicana Field to mark his career’s first DL stay, could become a blessing in disguise.
That verdict remains unknown. Two impressive outings against bad opponents, the latest a five-strikeout complete game in a 3-1 victory over the Chicago White Sox on Sunday that closed with Price slamming his left palm into his glove to celebrate, are far from the sample size necessary to declare, “David Price is back.” More will be learned.
Still, Price’s recent emergence introduces a worthy question: Does time away motivate a player in such a way that his performance can be elevated, especially for someone considered to be among the league’s best at what he does? How does he channel the frustration, the agitation, of his absence into something productive when he returns?
“I’m right where I need to be right now,” said Price, whose ERA dropped to 4.18, “and we still have a lot of baseball left.”
That is positive news for the Rays, and more importantly, for him. Measuring value of “fresh starts” and “new beginnings” can be risky business. There are a variety of potential outcomes for players when they return from a health obstacle like the one Price overcame, and his season can turn a number of directions at this point.
But Price’s recent statements indicate that this could be a year measured in two separate but significant eras: The “Pre-DL” and “Post-DL” versions of him.
The Pre-DL Price went 1-4, had a 5.24 ERA and faced worn, repetitive queries about decreased velocity on his fastball. This was a time that included moments of visible frustration from him, and “What’s wrong with Price?” became a common question in the region and beyond when discussing the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner.
Meanwhile, the Post-DL Price has gone 2-0, allowing just 11 hits and one run in 16 innings. He recorded the Rays’ first complete game since James Shields did so against the Baltimore Orioles on Oct. 2, 2012, and he has thrown just one three-ball count after facing 55 batters in his past two starts.
“I think the injury provided what he needed,” said Rays manager Joe Maddon, who allowed Price to throw 98 pitches Sunday. “Then I think the game itself provides what he needs. He loves to do this, and it was taken away from him a little bit.”
For Price, part of that time away included learning to manage his impatience. It was common during his rehab updates to hear how frustrating the slog of a DL lifestyle was for him.
Yes, he maintained a presence during homestands while away: Standing on the dugout’s top step, offering vocal and visible support to other members of the Rays’ staff, trying to remain as much a part of the process as he could. But the experience fell short of digging into the mound, breathing the game, knowing that his performance influenced his team’s own.
There was a void. Now, that absence is filled.
“He’s the anchor of the staff,” Rays third baseman Evan Longoria said. “He’s the guy that everybody on the staff looks to if we’re in a little bit of a slide. … When he pitches like he did today, they want to follow suit. They want to have that battle within and pitch better than one another.”
That is part of what was missing with Price gone. His edge. His competitive fire. It would be unfair to say Price ever lost either quality before the injury, but perhaps his time away allowed him to reconnect with both.
“You just get that mental break,” Price told FOX Sports Florida about his time away. “I didn’t have to talk to media three times a week. You’re not out there in all those pressure situations that we put ourselves in on the mound. That takes a lot out of you throughout a year. Just to have that little month and a half off, it helped.”
He looks recharged, after two starts in a new season for him.
There is plenty of time to show this Post-DL Price is here to stay.