State of the Rays: Price off to rough start

These are different times for David Price. His offseason was spent, deservedly so, receiving the spoils of his American League Cy Young Award earned last season. His name has been mentioned, deservedly so, as a star who could command a contract that soon prices him out of Tampa Bay – the lone franchise he has known in his five-plus-year major-league career. 
But the past week has served as a speed bump of sorts on the left-hander’s sprint toward the top. His line after starts against the Baltimore Orioles and Cleveland Indians should offer, at the least, a point of caution for the Tampa Bay Rays and possible reason for them, at the most, to worry: A rotation-high 8.18 ERA in 11 innings, including the surrender of a staff-high three home runs and 17 hits.
All stats in April require a preface, of course. Anything lost or gained this time of year represents an impression, not a trend. Price’s maturity and recent history – he has produced an ERA no higher than 3.49 (2011) the past three seasons – suggest the 27-year-old will escape the wilderness and find more familiar production. He is a proven commodity, not an unsure bet. 
Still, the season’s opening week offered a touch of drama for the 6-foot-6, 220-pound power thrower from Vanderbilt. The Indians shook him for eight runs and 10 hits in five innings Sunday. (Entering the day, he was 5-0 with a 1.64 ERA in six starts against Cleveland.) 
Is this the start of something worse? What has gone wrong? 
“I’m just fighting myself right now,” Price said after the loss, which dropped the Rays to 3-3. “It’s tough. For as good as I feel out there on the mound, to go out there and be my own worst enemy, that’s a tough thing to do. I’ve got to get out of my own way and just throw the ball.” 
Repetition is his best antidote for now. Manager Joe Maddon remains unfazed by Price’s fight to be consistent. That trust from the dugout is excused and has been earned, and it’s partly why Tampa Bay has found success with its loose, but committed culture: Adversity within the franchise is viewed as an opportunity, not a hindrance, even with no shortage of obstacles given the market.
Still, Price’s reflection Sunday reveals some uncertainty for him. The Rays lost consecutive starts by him only twice last season: May 20 against the Atlanta Braves, followed by May 26 against the Boston Red Sox; and August 21 against the Kansas City Royals, followed by August 27 against the Texas Rangers. The results of the past week were rare, and they show how valuable of a commodity Price has become in a short amount of time. 
“David was, obviously, not sharp,” Maddon said Sunday. “But he’s not going to make any excuses about it. I’m not concerned. It’s just one of those days.” 
But the Rays better hope there aren’t many more. Price left with a 3-2 lead against Baltimore on Tuesday, but he struggled with his command most of the afternoon. Then Sunday’s stumble was the first time he gave up more than seven earned runs in his career. 
It’s too soon to say Price is slumping, but it’s fair for more than a few eyebrows to be raised. This is, after all, a game of trends. Price has become the Rays’ ace, but he relied on James Shields in recent years to carry part of the weight in the rotation. With Shields gone, Price will have more responsibility to be elite, to be consistent, to be another AL Cy Young Award contender in a year when his division appears as difficult as ever.  
That will be Price’s test moving forward. Two starts into the season, it’s never good to hear a staff leader say he’s fighting himself. The words hint that this test is mental as well as physical. Overcoming both aspects will be key in his attempt to return to normal. 
“It’s just one of those things where you’ve got to find whatever it is that clicks and stay with it,” Price said Sunday. 
“I just need to get better and keep working hard. It’s not due to a lack of work. This was a very tough game. They put it to us today. It was very rough.”
The season doesn’t have to stay rough for Price, and if recent history is a guide, it won’t. But the opening week was a proper time to exercise caution. 
Was this the start of something worse? It’s too early to tell, but it sure was different. 
What’s Hot
Matt Moore was the Rays’ most inconsistent rotation member all spring, finishing the exhibition season with a 3.80 ERA and a staff-high 14 walks in 21 1/3 innings. But he performed well in his season debut Friday, striking out eight batters and throwing six scoreless innings in a 4-0 victory over the Indians. That upward mobility, coupled with a strong showing in his spring finale, should be taken as good news for Maddon and the rest of the coaching staff.
This will be a season when all Rays starters must carry a heavier load with Shields gone, and with Price’s early troubles, Moore’s progression will be studied closely. In the past, the 23-year-old left-hander has been a slow starter: He went without a victory in four April starts last season, his first full campaign in the majors. Including his five minor-league seasons, he began Friday with a 4.52 ERA in April and May. (Meanwhile, he has a 2.30 ERA in June to October.) With the spring hardship seemingly behind him, it will be important for him to stay consistent in the weeks ahead.
What’s Not
Price’s rocky two outings were troublesome, but Tampa Bay’s pitching as a whole proved to be a weak spot in matchups against the Orioles and Indians. The Rays rank No. 27 in staff ERA (5.50), leading only the Milwaukee Brewers, San Diego Padres and Philadelphia Phillies. By allowing 10 home runs, Tampa Bay is one of six teams to surrender double-digit totals in the category, trailing the Brewers’ league-worst figure by three.
Sure, it’s early, and one week is hardly enough time to judge a staff. Tampa Bay led the majors in ERA last season, posting a 3.19 total. Logic suggests Price will eventually work out of his funk, and Moore and Alex Cobb both looked decent in their debuts. Still, there won’t be much margin for error in the American League East. Strong, consistent pitching will be rewarded, and the season’s opening week offered unkind returns for the Rays.
Quotes of the week
“Without Chris Davis, we’re 3-0. I’ve seen a lot of guys hit the ball well against us in a three-game series. That’s the most locked-in I’ve ever seen anybody.”
– Evan Longoria, on the Orioles’ Chris Davis, who went 7-for-11 with 11 RBI and three home runs against the Rays. 
“Uneasy. Very uneasy. We play a bit better without the great expectations. I felt better about things without the expectations and, quite frankly, as we saw last year in our division, we had a team that could have won 100 games win under 70 (Red Sox) and another that could have won 70 (Orioles) beat us out in the playoffs. Great stuff.”
– Principal owner Stuart Sternberg, on high expectations facing the Rays despite what is thought to be a competitive AL East this season.
“It’s unfortunate and some other words I can’t say right now. That’s what it is. … Here we are.”
– Right-hander Jeff Niemann, after being placed on the 15-day disabled list Friday because of right shoulder soreness. Earlier, late in spring training, he was assigned to the bullpen after losing out on a rotation spot to right-hander Roberto Hernandez.
Numbers game
1,207: Consecutive games played by the Rays without using a free-agent starting pitcher before Hernandez took the mound during a 6-3 loss to the Orioles on Thursday.
19: Scoreless innings thrown by closer Fernando Rodney going into the ninth inning Wednesday, before allowing a run to the Orioles in an eventual 8-7 Tampa Bay victory.
2: Times Longoria has passed Ben Zobrist on the base pads, after a mishap in the ninth inning during the loss to the Orioles on Thursday. The same thing happened on June 27, 2011, in the sixth inning of a game against the Cincinnati Reds at Tropicana Field.
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