Price in peak form as Rays close out Indians
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — David Price donned his green St. Paddy’s Day ball cap and matching-colored tank top by his locker Thursday afternoon.
That seemed like an especially appropriate look considering how Price keeps throwing those lucky sevens, the latest of which helped change the fortunes of the Tampa Bay Rays just when they needed it most.
Price pitched seven superb innings of two-hit ball against the Cleveland Indians — the 12th time he has gone seven or more in his last 14 starts — and helped pave the way to a 6-0 victory that erased the bitter memory of the 10-6 giveaway loss to the Tribe the night before.
In the process, the lanky left-hander joined knuckleballer R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets as the only two 13-game winners in the majors, raising his record to 13-4 with a 2.64 ERA and raising the spirits of his teammates.
The Rays needed a boost after blowing a 4-0 lead Wednesday night, allowing the Indians to stage two big innings after two outs en route to defeat. And as he has done all season, Price rose to the occasion, supported by a Luke Scott solo shot and a bases-clearing double by B.J. Upton.
Everything was clicking as the Rays improved to 48-45 in the AL East before a delighted crowd of 27,856 at the Trop and pulled to within one game back in the wild-card hunt. Hey, even lumbering catcher Jose Molina managed to steal his first base of the season — only the 13th of his 10-year career.
"What a difference 16 hours makes," said manager Joe Maddon. "You come back after a game like last night an then J-Mo steals second base, so you have to win that game. Whenever J-Mo steals a bag, you must win that game. But David was outstanding. He had once again great command of his fastball, starting mixing in some other things. But (his) fastball command was incredible — a lot of 97s, 98s where he wanted to throw it. That’s what makes it even better."
In fact, Maddon regards Price as even better than he was in 2010, when he finished 19-6 and as runner-up in the Cy Young Award voting:
"I’m just talking about ability. I’m talking about lining up and throwing a strike when he wants to. I’m talking knowing what to do with the tools in the toolbox. He’s finally getting to the point where he’s pitching more intelligently, with better command of everything. I honestly believe he’s pitching better than I saw him a couple of years ago."
Tampa Bay is now 13-6 in games Price has started this season, compared with 35-39 in all other games. And he improved to 5-0 against Cleveland, punctuating the win with his first pick-off of the season and first time in his career hurling a scoreless outing with only two hits allowed.
Price, who pitched a perfect inning in the All-Star Game, concurred with Maddon that he’s pitching better than ever this season.
"My fastball’s gotten better, and gotten more velocity — it’s consistent throughout the entire game," he said. "My curveball’s better and my cutter is more consistent. And I throw my change-up whenever I need to. That makes it tough for those guys."
While Price seems to have a magic touch against any opponent he faces these days, Scott has definitely enjoyed one against the Indians in particular.
Leading into the All-Star Break, he was on the verge of making history with the longest hitless streak ever in the majors. But he snapped out of his 0-for-41 slump with a homer on July 6 ¬in Cleveland — six hits shy of the record — and has been feasting on Indians pitching ever since.
Put it this way: In his last 20 games, Scott is 14-for-33 (.424) against the Indians over eight games and 0-for-38 against the rest of the league in 12 other contests. Eight of those 14 hits have gone for extra bases, including three homers, four doubles (one of which he added Thursday) and a triple, along with nine RBI.
"Nice comeback for (Scott)," Maddon said. "Bad June. July’s been a lot better. Hopefully, August and September continue the trend even higher. He’s done a great job."
Following his 4-for-4 showing Wednesday night, Scott got the Rays on the board in the third with a towering blast to right field. The Rays stranded nine runners and failed to cash in on several other scoring opportunities — a major problem the night before — but in the sixth all that changed when they staged their own two-out rally.
First came ground-outs by Jeff Keppinger and Hideki Matsui, playing in place of Matt Joyce (he was experiencing back soreness after his first two games back from a stint on the disabled list). Desmond Jennings was hit by a pitch from Ubaldo Jiminez and Molina followed with a single, moving Jennings to second. Sean Rodriguez then drew a walk to load the bases with Upton coming to the plate.
With the count 0-1, he ripped a shot just inside the left-field line that rolled to the corner, allowing the bases to clear. Upton later added a double in the eighth to finish 3-for-5 in the leadoff spot.
"It’s not just me, it could have been anybody in that situation," he said. "We needed that because we haven’t been doing it lately. So it definitely felt good."
What also felt good for the Rays is that they’re now finished with the AL Central for the season, They close the door on Central foes with an 8-16 showing, compared with 40-29 against everyone else.
In addition, the win allowed Tampa Bay to salvage a split in the four-game Indians series, after dropping two of three against Boston to start the 10-game homestand. Thursday’s outcome propels the Rays into the final leg of the stand — a weekend series against the struggling Seattle Mariners — on a high note.
The Mariners are last in the AL West with a record of 40-54 and present the Rays with an excellent opportunity to build a winning streak, before hitting the road next week for a nine-game trip to Baltimore, Anaheim and Oakland.
James Shields (8-6, 4.44) will start Friday at 7:10 against Hisashi Iwakuma (1-2, 5.13). He hopes to stabilize his recent double-digit free fall, in which he’s allowed 10 hits or more in four straight games. Alex Cobb has also struggled recently, taking a 4-6 record and 4.92 ERA into Saturday night’s contest against Jason Vargas (9-7, 4.09) and Matt Moore (6-6, 4.39) closes it out Sunday at 1:40 p.m. against Blake Beavan (4-6, 6.06).
Maddon said outfielder Sam Fuld, coming back from wrist surgery, continues to make good progress in his rehab stint with Durham but plans don’t call for Fuld to rejoin the Rays this weekend.
When he does, likely next week, that could possibly spell the end of the Matsui’s time with the Rays. Since hitting two homers in his first three games, he has hit only .152 (12-for-79) with no homers and just 3 RBI in 28 games, including 0-for-3 Thursday with a strikeout.
Maddon, however, praised Matsui’s attitude and emphasized that he’s just missed connecting some big hits, including getting under one pitch Thursday on a high fly-out.
"I’ll say it for the hundredth time — I’ve only known him a couple of months, but he’s a total professional," Maddon said. "He stays ready, doesn’t complain. There’s still some good work left in his bat. We just have to try to find the right spot to get him out there."
As for Joyce, he added that he thinks the lefty slugger will be ready to return to the starting lineup Friday: "I think he will, but I’m not 100 percent sure yet."
What is 100 percent, on the other hand, is how much better the Rays feel today than they did late Wednesday night.
And they have to hand it Price, just as they’ve been doing all season long.