Thursday night at Tropicana Field was an example of the terrific talent, the wonderful possibilities and the need for Price to find a way to get deeper into games. As pitching problems go, this one is not on the level of "his fastball tops out at 83 mph," or "he has absolutely no movement on his pitches; none, nada, nothing, nil." But it can still get in the way.
Here, against the Angels, Price worked 4 1/3 innings allowing just two hits, striking out six. The one run charged to him scored after he left the game. But he also walked six. It took him 105 pitches to navigate these 4 1/3 innings, which was why he was not allowed to try for the two additional outs that would have qualified him for a decision. Long after Price departed, the Rays wrapped up an 11-1 victory.
The decision of Rays manager Joe Maddon to lift Price was booed vociferously by the home crowd, but the Rays' caution with Price is both understandable and justifiable. You don't take chances with a 23-year-old pitcher who is going to become a franchise pitcher. This is why Price started the season at Triple-A Durham, where he made eight starts, none longer than five innings. The Rays want to limit his total of regular-season innings to 175-180.
Price was the first overall pick of the 2007 First-Year Player Draft, but he placed himself in the national baseball consciousness with his work in the 2008 postseason. Price was pressed into service in the Rays' bullpen and came through like a veteran and a champion. In five postseason appearances, he gave up just one run and had one victory and one save. That save came in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, against Boston. It was a four-out save in a moment that defined postseason drama.
Anyone who saw those performances could have come to the conclusion that Price's next big league act would be to soar past the competition as a regular member of the Rays' rotation. But as Maddon explains, those short bullpen bursts in October are considerably different than the regular-season workload of a starter.
"There are two different pitchers right there," Maddon says. "The pitcher everybody saw in the playoffs was a relief pitcher. What people saw last year with David coming in with was a lot of adrenaline flowing, good fastball, good slider, trying to get three, four, maybe five outs. Now he's trying to get 21, which is optimal."
In four starts with the Rays this season since coming up in late May, Price is 1-0 with a 2.37 ERA. His longest starts have been 5 2/3 innings twice, but to get through 19 innings of work he has required 419 pitches. He has struck out 26, but he has walked 18. Until Price becomes more pitch-efficient, his starts will represent a lot of work for the Tampa Bay bullpen, and considerable unrealized potential for himself.
But the Rays are confident that he will get it.
"I think he's the kind of guy who doesn't necessarily need the instruction, but just the thought that 'I've got to get deeper into the games, I need to make the adjustment, '" Maddon said. "Sometimes you can paint the mental picture for a good athlete and then he'll make his own adjustments. Whereas everybody always wants to talk mechanics all the time, sometimes that is the issue, but with him I think it's just him putting his mind to going deeper into games, and he'll figure out a way to do that."
The stuff is there -- the mid-90s fastball, the slider, the changeup. And the mental makeup of Price allows him to shoulder the responsibility for his current shortcomings. That is the first step toward getting better. Much better.
"Not good," was Price's assessment of his work Thursday night. "That's three times out there with five or more walks. I can't put words on it, I can't describe it. I felt great today, felt like I had good stuff.
"I had six walks. I walked three in the first inning. I shouldn't be anywhere near 100 pitches in the fifth inning. It's frustrating."
On the plus side, all the Angels could achieve with the bats against Price were two singles, one of which was a checked-swing, opposite-side roller. When he threw strikes, he was in charge.
"That's something positive I've got to take out it," Price said. "When I'm in the zone, I have success. When I'm not, I have five and six walks. That's unacceptable. I've got to get better, bottom line."
The Rays remain confident in their prize left-hander.
"David had great stuff again tonight," Maddon said. "We've just got to get more strikes out of him. It's going to happen. It's a matter of when."
Based on this much talent, this much purpose, and this much support, yes, Price's success seems to be largely a matter of time. Sooner rather than later would be good for the 2009 edition of the Rays. But there is no dispute that at some point, given good health, Price can be one of the game's very best.