Which Price will take mound in Game 3?

BY foxsports • October 2, 2011

We will never forget how last Wednesday night ended. That is a good thing for David Price. He would rather not remember how it began.

Price’s start at Tropicana Field was a sloppy prelude to the indelible heroics of Dan Johnson, Robert Andino and Evan Longoria. The left-hander is lucky that Sept. 28 will go down as the greatest night of regular-season baseball we’ve ever witnessed, not the night Price came up small (four innings, five earned runs) on a night the Tampa Bay Rays needed him to be big.

Price will take the ball again Monday, in a postseason Game 3 that is somehow less desperate than regular-season Game 162. Unlike in his last start, there is no threat of a loss ending the Rays’ season.

But there is so much at stake for Price and his team. With a win, Tampa Bay would take a 2-1 lead over the Texas Rangers in their American League Division Series. With a commanding performance, Price can go a long way toward rebuilding a reputation for clutch pitching that has eroded since his grand entrance during the 2008 postseason.

“It all depends on which Price shows up that day,” Texas slugger Josh Hamilton said.

That is so true.

Price has the fastball and fortitude to own big moments. He’s done it before. As a 23-year-old rookie, he threw the pennant-clinching pitch in a tense Game 7 against the Boston Red Sox. Last year, he handled the All-Star Game starting assignment with ease. Later in the season, he fired eight shutout innings in a memorable September showdown with Cy Young competitor CC Sabathia.

Then …

He made two home starts against Texas in last year’s ALDS — but lost both to Cliff Lee. He rebounded with a second straight All-Star selection this season — but went winless with a 4.01 ERA over six September starts, including the clunker against New York that could have kept the Rays out of these playoffs.

So, who is David Price? Is he one of the greatest pitchers of his generation? Or is he merely an excellent pitcher most of the time?

If it’s the latter, there is no shame in that. These days, pitchers with that label sign contracts that approach $100 million. But Price, 26, has never been motivated by money alone. There is substance to him. He’s a Vanderbilt guy. He knows his potential. He understands the value of accountability to his teammates and organization.

He wants badly to deliver.

And I think he will.

One year later, against the same playoff opponent, Price has a chance at October redemption. He can earn his first postseason win as a starter and first victory over Texas, period.

After going 0-for-2 last October, he’s due.

“It’s pretty unique — a good opportunity for me to have,” Price said. “This is a very tough lineup, obviously. It’s a lineup that I really haven’t had a whole lot of success against in the past.

“Having the same team beat you twice here at your home ballpark, in front of your home fans — that’s a tough pill to swallow. But it’s going to make me better.”

And there is no mystery about where Price needs to be better on Monday. He must settle into a rhythm, command his fastball and work ahead in the count — the things he didn’t do against the Rangers last October, the things fellow left-hander Matt Moore did do against the Rangers in Friday’s Game 1 victory.

It will not be easy, because the Texas lineup is stocked with smart hitters who adapt as the game wears on. The Rangers can look off-balance against a starter during his first time through the order — and then throttle him in the middle innings. Hamilton suggested that the Rangers can be more patient with Price than Moore, reasoning that his heavier fastball might drop out of the strike zone more frequently.

But a mid-90s fastball is a mid-90s fastball. And if Price puts it in the right places, the Rays should win.

“I always believe David will rise to the occasion,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “I know he has had a couple tough starts, but this guy’s truly got one of the best makeups I have ever been around for a young player.

“I always love that David Price is pitching for us. I mean that very sincerely.”

Game 3 isn’t a must-win for the Rays, but they need it more than the Rangers. Tampa Bay seized home-field advantage with the split in Texas; a loss here would hand it right back.

Apart from that, Tampa Bay’s Game 4 starter will be rookie Jeremy Hellickson. After a standout regular season — 13-10, 2.95 ERA — Hellickson is perfectly capable of silencing the Rangers in his postseason debut. But the Rays would rather not ask him to do that while facing elimination.

Maddon has indicated that James Shields will likely start Game 5, if there is one. That decision is ripe for the second-guessing, since the electrifying Moore would be available to pitch — on an additional day of rest, no less.

The Texas hitters would probably rather face Shields, against whom they had success in Game 2. But Shields has been Tampa Bay’s ace and most consistent starter this year. Maddon, who manages the confidence of his players as well as anyone in baseball, wouldn’t want to disrespect him. And the Rays are keeping a close watch on Moore’s innings this year.

In the same situation, the win-at-all-costs Yankees would probably start Moore. But the Rays are not the win-at-all-costs Yankees. They have the all-homegrown rotation that is the envy of baseball, and Price, the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2007, is the face of it.

For the fourth time in 12 months, he’s going to make what some will say is the “start of his life.” And this time, he’s going to win.

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