ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — A historic matchup between reigning Cy Young Award winners offered a study in how baseball is an unforgiving game, one that humbles, changes fortunes and leaves progress as an open-ended question.
Tampa Bay Rays left-hander David Price and Toronto Blue Jays right-hander R.A. Dickey met Thursday at Tropicana Field, with the Rays earning a 5-4 victory in 10 innings in a no-decision for both aces. It was only the third time since Cy Young Awards were given to winners in each league starting in 1969 that reigning winners met. Their outings, by the numbers, were similar: Price gave up two earned runs, seven hits and one walk in eight innings; Dickey, meanwhile, surrendered two earned runs, five hits and five walks in six.
This season has been a showcase in how difficult it can be to follow a Cy Young Award-winning season. Dickey began Thursday with a 2-5 record and a 5.17 ERA through seven starts, a loser in his last three appearances. Meanwhile, Price owned a 1-3 record with a 6.11 ERA, with the Rays suffering losses in all but one of his seven starts in a frustrating month for the ace.
Compare those numbers with the success both enjoyed in 2012. Price had a 20-5 record with a 2.56 ERA in 31 starts. Meanwhile, Dickey had a 20-6 record with a 2.73 ERA in 34 appearances.
For each pitcher, the reason for the anomaly varies. Perhaps it’s frustration. Perhaps it’s self-imposed pressure. Perhaps it’s adjustment to new roles – Dickey with a new team and Price as a more visible team leader without James Shields.
Only Price and Dickey know the complete reasons for their early slides. After all, pitching is one of the most difficult mental tasks in all of professional sports. Control and confidence have a lot to do with streaks on a mound, the diamond’s brightest spotlight, but fortunate bounces and outright luck don’t hurt as well.
“I think this could be a springboard for him, I really do,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said of Price. “Against a team like that, they’ve been swinging the bats well. They’ve got a good lineup. They’re solid, man. You don’t mess with that group. I think that David went out there and challenged them. I loved his aggressive approach tonight. That looked a lot more like him, and I really think that’s a great game for him to build off of.”
The matchup Thursday was interesting because of it revealed how quickly momentum can swing in the majors. At a combined 28-40 record, the Rays and Blue Jays entered the final night of their four-game series in the bizarre position of standing fourth and fifth, respectively, in the American League East. For many reasons, the underachievement seemed odd, almost jarring.
Neither team – certainly neither pitcher – expected they would find themselves in a dreary position more than a month into the season. Even this early, when there’s ample time to cut the distance between them and the streaking Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, the Rays’ and Blue Jays’ spots in the standings seemed misplaced.
Both carried plenty of optimism in spring training, in part because of Price and Dickey. Both were thought to be AL East contenders. By the time Opening Day arrived, it wasn’t hard to buy into the preseason hype: The Rays as a savvy upstart and the Blue Jays as a re-tooled threat.
Tampa Bay, of course, figured to contend for the AL East crown, a year after missing the postseason for just the second time in the last four years. Price was assumed to be a consistent producer who would take on greater value after Shields, a workhorse right-hander in the Rays’ rotation over the past six seasons, was traded to the Kansas City Royals last December.
Meanwhile, Toronto was thought to be the AL East’s shiny new fascination, a possible upstart after a recent past of futility. (They have finished a dreadful fourth in the division in each of the past five years.) The Miami Marlins’ offseason salary dump, plus the seven-player trade with the New York Mets in December to land Dickey, figured to make the Blue Jays an intrigue at the least and a contender at most.
Surprise: Those spring visions haven’t come into focus so far. Injuries, inconsistency and overall average-to-below-average play have altered expectations for both … at least for now. Such is baseball.
“I don’t think about it,” Price said of facing Dickey. “If this were the National League where I had to face him or pitch against them, then maybe it’s a little bit different. But we’re probably the only two people on the field who don’t have too much to do with each other. You have to come out there with good stuff, especially when you’re facing a guy like R.A.”
Said Dickey: “I’m kind of falling into the pattern of a traditional knuckleballer – less than a hit per inning, but you have a lot of walks, and you have some strikeouts. That’s really not my personality with the pitch, normally. I’m much more efficient usually. I’ve got to figure out a way to repeat my delivery in a way that will allow me to throw more strikes.”
Still, as the positions experienced by Price and Dickey show, baseball is unpredictable. What appears like a known can become an uncertainty and vice versa, perhaps multiple times a season. Price and Dickey are two of the game’s biggest questions now, but they’re also two of its most accomplished talents in recent years. Recovery is possible.
On a rare night when two reigning Cy Young Award winners met, baseball reminded us why nothing is promised, nothing is guaranteed.