There have been times in the career of David Price where his ability to succeed in a big game has been called into question. The definition of a "big game" can differ from person to person, but the accusations aren't without some merit.
In game one of the 2010 ALDS, his first career playoff start, he allowed five runs and nine hits. In game five of that series, at home once again, he didn't pitch terribly, but lasted just six innings while allowing three runs as the Rays lost 5-1. On the last day of the 2011 regular season with the Rays desperately needing a victory to stay alive in the playoff race, Price had his worst start of the season, lasting just four innings and giving up six runs. Of course, it was his excellence over the previous six months that helped put the Rays in that position in the first place.
This season, the team is in a similar position. They need to keep winning or they'll be spending October at home. This has been Price's best season. His maturation on the mound and ability to make in game adjustments have taken him to a new level. Last night, that improvement was on full display.
Price's last two starts have each come against the Red Sox. The Sox used seven of the same hitters in the latter game so the comparison is easy. Take a look at Price's pitch selection in each.
Notice the difference? Ian spoke on it in his game recap, but Price's use of his offspeed pitches, mainly his curveball, kept the Red Sox hitters off balance for the rest of the night.
It's not that he pitched poorly on the 20th and needed to make a lot of adjustments -- three runs in seven plus innings -- but the Boston hitters were clearly sitting on his fastball through the first three frames last night. They had seven hits total and six came in the second and third innings. As Price told MLB.com, he conferred with Jose Molina and began to adjust.
"I felt like their approach to me in the second and third inning was very good," said Price. "I felt like they were trying to hit all the fastballs to right field, [and] that put 'em on time with the cutter. Granted it was catching too much plate and it was too much middle away. Molina came and talked to me after the third inning, told me we're going to switch some stuff up and give them some different looks and we kept doing that and it was pretty smart words."
The adjustment actually seemed to come against the last batter of the third inning, Cody Ross. He threw three curveballs to Ross after throwing just three, and just four other offspeed pitches, in the first 2.2 innings. In the 6.1 innings that followed he threw 34 curveballs and 18 changeups. Of the final 18 outs, Price used an offspeed pitch to record 13 of them.
He's come a long way from the pitcher we saw throw a fastball 100 of 111 pitches two years ago against Boston. He finished second in the Cy Young voting that season. He's pitching better this year, with an emphasis on "pitching," and looks to now be the frontrunner for the award. It's amazingly fun to watch a player learning to harness his powers before your very eyes, like Superman going from infancy to adulthood.
In the Rays' biggest game of the season, which every game from here out is, Price was at his absolute best. That's what big game pitchers do.