Rays’ first encounter against ex-teammate Price fittingly strange

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Two small orange basketballs sat above a drawer in one of David Price’s old stalls at Tropicana Field.

The space, aside from the miniature basketball hoop affixed to the top of the locker, has remained vacant since the left-hander’s trade to the Detroit Tigers on July 31. Someday, a different Tampa Bay Rays player will claim the spot as a part of baseball’s evolution. Price’s memory in a Rays uniform will grow more faint with time.

That moment wasn’t Thursday.

Around the area late in the afternoon, in a far corner of the Rays clubhouse, players dressed in pressed collared shirts and packed dark blue duffle bags for a flight to Toronto. They had survived an awkward encounter with a former teammate and friend, winning 1-0 despite knocking just one hit in Price’s nine-strikeout, 100-pitch complete game.

This was the final step in placing a season-defining trade in the past, an encounter of circumstance that pit a former clubhouse staple against some who considered the 2012 American League Cy Young Award winner a mentor. All the hype since Tuesday, all the hugs and reunion talk in Price’s return to his former home, gave way to a classic two-hour, 34-minute pitching duel with right-hander Alex Cobb.

Turns out, Brandon Guyer’s one-out triple to the right-center-field gap in the bottom of the first inning that drove in Ben Zobrist from first base was enough. Still, everything about the afternoon was strange.

"That was something I really never thought I’d have to do," Price said.

The Rays received an up-close look at what made Price so dominant during his six-plus seasons with them. The one hit allowed represents the fewest he has surrendered in a game since reaching the majors in 2008. He struck out nine to increase his season total to 221, a new career high. He retired 23 consecutive batters after Guyer’s hit. He was so relentless.

Still, little about this afternoon felt normal. It felt like something out of a video game, a fantasy matchup reserved for virtual reality.

There was Price in different colors on that familiar mound before the bottom of the first, facing the scoreboard beyond center field as a standing ovation built around him. There was Price in different colors with those familiar mannerisms: The long step back with his right foot, the deep exhale, the slight turn to his left before cocking back his left arm to deliver a pitch. There was Price in different colors with all the firsts: His first batter faced was Desmond Jennings, his first strikeout earned was against Evan Longoria, his first (and only) hit allowed was against Guyer.

"At the start of the game, it felt different, just him being on the other side and him being on the mound," Longoria said. "And I think you get into the flow of the game, and it becomes a little bit more normal, and you focus on the things that can potentially help you get hits on him. … But I think it’s one of those things where you play with a guy that long, it’s always going to be a little bit strange."

It was strange because Price helped make the Rays perennial winners. In a perfect world, he would have retired in a Tampa Bay uniform. In a perfect world, he would have won more AL Cy Young Awards here. In a perfect world, he would have claimed at least one World Series ring with the franchise that drafted him first overall in 2007.

But those won’t happen.

Price’s presence in a Tigers uniform hinted at many things: Baseball’s economics, the Rays’ way of doing business, unmet expectations by Tampa Bay after high hopes to begin the spring, Detroit’s desire to win another AL Central crown and match the Oakland Athletics in a true arms race.

Thursday, all the factors converged to create a strange atmosphere that made this game unlike any other here in some time. The recent past met the present as movement toward the future was made.

"I thought it was toughest on David," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Of anybody, it had to be toughest on him. … He’s always able to handle the moment. He did it again today.  

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"Totally awkward feel to the day."

Awkward feelings gave way to a new normal. Everyone is changed.

"Now that it’s over with," Price said, "I’ve thrown in every AL park as an opposing pitcher now, so that’s cool. They played my walkout song when I went out there, so that’s cool. They kept cheering."

Price didn’t have to worry about the affection. He’ll forever be remembered here for the dominance and pure talent he showed that helped raise Tampa Bay’s profile the past six years.

The Rays would be far from the same without him. No matter what he does in his career, Price will be recalled here for what he accomplished when his cap read "TB." The past, no matter the future, will remain close.

"All the stuff leading up to the game was awesome," said Cobb, who allowed two hits and struck out six in seven innings. "Definitely, David deserved everything that he got from the crowd. … I think awkward would lie on his side more than mine. It was fun to beat a guy that’s been so impactful in my career and just a good friend."

They’re friends forever but opponents now and into the future. Baseball life for all involved is different. There’s no going back to the old status quo.

But Price left pieces of himself here through his on-field impact and off-the-field contributions. Each aspect made him one of the most beloved Rays players ever, and a new reality in different colors, still in its beginnings, can never erase what has been done.

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