Free of distractions, Rays’ David Price pushes for perfection

David Price had seven strikeouts in 6 2/3 innings Sunday in Tampa Bay's 8-4 victory over Boston.

Jerome Miron/Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — Perfection is the destination. There’s no gray area with David Price. He’s 6-foot-6, 210 pounds of Type-A aggression that rolls in like waves from the Gulf of Mexico: He keeps coming and coming, and even the slightest error, the smallest impurity, will command his attention.

That’s why he has become one of Major League Baseball’s best at his position. That’s why he won the 2012 American League Cy Young Award at a ripe 27 years old. That’s why he has had a ridiculous spring, one in which he says this is the "best I’ve felt in a while," and his February and March comfort should make for a scary April, May, June and beyond for any American League batter not wearing a uniform that reads "RAYS" across his chest.

"I can definitely improve on a lot of stuff out there," Price said after he bludgeoned the Boston Red Sox for 6 2/3 innings Sunday at Charlotte Sports Park during an 8-4 victory, one in which he allowed two runs, three hits and struck out seven.

That’s the secret to Price’s pursuit: He won’t allow himself to slip. Complacency is the poison for ambition, no matter the field or arena, and the seven-year veteran serves as the match for his own fire.

Need proof? Exhibit A: Despite another stellar outing Sunday — Price is 2-0 with a 2.70 ERA in three spring starts (13 1/3 innings) — he stood near his locker and addressed hitting Boston’s lead-off man, centerfielder Jackie Bradley Jr., to open the game three sentences into his reflection of the day. He expects to excel. He’s aware when he doesn’t.

Rays raise cancer awareness

"I felt good," Price said. "It was good to get out there and feel better in the first inning. Still, hitting Jackie Bradley, you never want to start off a game with that leadoff guy on base, especially like that."

Exhibit B: Despite mowing through Red Sox hitters — "Everything was working," Rays manager Joe Maddon said from the field later — Price wanted to end his afternoon on his terms, with Tampa Bay’s bullpen warming in the seventh inning. After allowing a single to Mike Carp and striking out Mike Napoli and Deven Marrero, Price walked Corey Brown, a sequence in which ball No. 4 skirted beyond the plate’s corner.

Price turned toward second base. His shoulders lifted up and down, as if he had barked something to an audience of one, himself. Maddon, in a short time, emerged from the dugout to summon right-hander Heath Bell in relief.

"He had everything going," Maddon said. "You saw a lot of 95s (mph) early in the game. It came down to 93, and a lot of it was just fatigue or just the score of the game at that point."

It’s simple to understand where most of Price’s recent motivation has been drawn. Maddon’s announcement last Thursday of the ace left-hander as the Rays’ Opening Day starter against the Toronto Blue Jays drew an official end to the Winter of Rumor. This was closure.

Tampa Bay Rays on Sun Sports

At last, his trade talk had died. At last, the Hot Stove buzz from the Seattle Mariners and Arizona Diamondbacks and elsewhere was gone. At last, the only thing ahead of Price was his comfort: That mound, that rubber, that goal of another 200-plus strikeout season, which would be his third in four years.

About time.

The past six months have included an interesting evolution for a player who grinds to gain as much control as he can. He has gone from frustrated at Fenway Park to accepting a trade as his likely offseason fate to wondering how Masahiro Tanaka’s market will affect his own to announcing that he was the happiest man in Port Charlotte, Fla., upon his arrival for spring training.

For a player like Price, whose success is due to his emotional gifts as well as his physical prowess, that winding path will influence how he attacks this summer. He’ll be relentless.

"It’s pretty much a lose-lose," Rays right-hander Jeremy Hellickson said of pitchers in spring training. "If we go out and pitch well, people want to see us do it again and again. If we pitch bad, something is wrong. But I’m not surprised at all (by Price). He works hard in the offseason. He’s ready to pitch right when he gets here.

"Not too much would surprise me about that guy anymore."

Hellickson laughed.

"He’s the best," he added, "for a reason."

And the reason is this: Even when there’s little to find wrong, no matter how small, Price’s pursuit for that spotless hour is never-ending, always tireless.

Like it was Sunday, when he was quick to mention where growth can occur.

"More consistency, I feel like," he said. "Just keeping your mind-frame in the right position whenever you’re out there. You can wander whenever you’re sitting on the bench, but whenever you get out there between the lines, you’ve got to be able to flip it back, especially when you get two outs in an inning."

Onward he goes, the only way he knows, his push forever coming and coming.   

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.