Rays close strong but questions about Price's future will continue into All-Star break
JUL 13, 2014 8:45p ET
Reliever Joel Peralta, near the conclusion of the display, hugged him. Pitching coach Jim Hickey hugged him. Then Price, with a bright light and more eyes waiting nearby, turned to his left for a short television interview to place a period on a strange but memorable first half.
There's no more fitting way for the Rays' pre-All-Star break schedule to end than Price standing as the center of conversation once more. His return in spring training with a $14 million salary was a symbol of Tampa Bay's faith in its ability to compete for an American League East title and beyond with a payroll of more than $82 million, high for its small-market history. His trade buzz now, #HugWatch became a popular Twitter hashtag Sunday afternoon, remains inescapable following the Rays' 3-0 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays to improve to 44-53.
''We've kept it one game at a time,'' said Price, who allowed five hits and struck out five in eight innings. ''That's the way it has been. That's what (manager) Joe (Maddon) always talks on all the time: It's with one game at a time, saying we need to win every series from here on out. We need to just focus on the task at hand.''
Tracking Price's trade buzz has become like following the Dow Jones Industrial Average. The likelihood of Price being dealt seemingly rises and falls each day, dependent on the Rays' results and the latest nuggets on MLBTradeRumors.com.
That's why this situation grips the imagination. With the Rays' choice either to deal or keep him before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, there are consequences for Tampa Bay's future and a potential suitor's present, all possibilities centered around one question.
Do the Rays feel they have a chance?
Though Tampa Bay could spin a Price trade a number of ways, it would be difficult to view such a decision as anything more than gazing toward 2015. Such an outlook seemed reasonable more than two weeks ago, when the Rays scuffled to a 31-48 record after a loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates on June 24.
Then, there was life.
There was the 10-2 run from June 25-July 6 that included a 9-2 trip to Baltimore, New York and Detroit. Then there was the most recent 3-3 homestand against the Kansas City Royals and Blue Jays that included two consecutive victories to close.
The Rays have played better. They remain flawed, but it's obvious they haven't floundered in the same way that they did when they limped through a 1-14 skid from May 26-June 10.
Lately, there has been more peak and less valley, just the way Maddon wants it.
''We're trending in the right direction,'' Maddon said. ''It's still a tough hill to climb, but I think you can say our guys are up for the challenge. There was no let-up getting to our All-Star break. We didn't mail anything in. We weren't eager to get out of here. We wanted to come out and play another good game. And then short-term goal met -- we won the series.''
Take Sunday as the latest proof. Second baseman Logan Forsythe cracked an RBI single to right-center field in the second inning, scoring shortstop Yunel Escobar from second base to give the Rays a 1-0 lead. Forsythe, once a popular target of scorn, has 10 RBI over his last 13 games since June 28.
Catcher Jose Molina, also a controversial figure, smacked an RBI single to right-center field in the sixth that scored Escobar to give Tampa Bay a 2-0 lead. Molina drove in a run on consecutive games for the first time since a three-game streak from July 5-8, 2013.
The Rays, in Price Watch 2014, trended up once more.
Will the momentum continue? Better question: If so, will it be enough?
''Just win series,'' Rays reliever Jake McGee said. ''We almost won the first series (against Kansas City) too. It was close all the way until the end. If we keep winning series and keep winning games and climbing back half a game at a time, we'll be in there at the end.''
The Rays must continue thinking that way, because it's the only method to make their climb manageable. They have won four of five series since embarking on the 11-game trip from June 27-July 6, a possible pivot point for this season if they rally in the second half.
Fortunately for them, the Rays play in the average AL East, where the division-leading Baltimore Orioles entered play Sunday at 51-42, making them the worst AL East leader on the date since the 2000 New York Yankees were 45-38.
So the decision whether to keep or trade Price is complex and must be done with care. It's about the potential haul if he leaves. It's about a smart and deep look at Tampa Bay's ceiling for the second half. It's about a much tougher choice than it appeared three weeks ago.
''Our pitchers are going to pitch better more than they're going to pitch worse,'' Rays right fielder Ben Zobrist said. ''Our hitting is going to score enough runs to win more than not. So that wasn't happening early in the season. We knew that we were capable of it. It just wasn't happening. We knew it couldn't last forever.''
The pain hasn't lasted forever, and the Rays should feel better about themselves going into the break.
''The place that we're in right now ... is probably a lot more what I imagined it would look like,'' Hickey said.
Time will show if it's enough to keep Price.