The first at bat of the Rays' 2014 season was David Price against Jose Reyes, and it was a worthy beginning. Price placed a sinker on the inside corner for a called strike, and then brought a cutter inside a bit too far for a ball. The third pitch was an outside fastball that Reyes reached for and flared the other way into short left-center field. Desmond Jennings had to range a long way forward and to his left, and he capped his run off with a full-speed diving grab. Price just clapped a bit, and gave a quiet smile that seemed to say, "I know the defense I have playing behind me, and I like it."
A groundout by Melky Cabrera brought up Jose Bautista, one of the most dangerous righties in the league. Price started the at bat by placing a 95 mph fastball at the bottom of the zone for a called strike, and then brought the fastball in on Bautista's hands for a whiff. The third pitch was a ball, but Price put the Toronto slugger away with a beautiful low cutter that seemed to have more vertical break than that pitch usually does.
In my preview of Toronto starter R.A. Dickey, I said to expect more wild pitches/passed balls than runs. That was definitively not the case, and it's both a credit to Josh Thole (who only let one past him by my unofficial count), and the Rays offense, which had Dickey's number from the beginning. Wil Myers got the party started when he managed to stay back on a first-pitch knuckleball and send it the other way to the wall in the big part of right-center field for a double. Evan Longoria brought Myers home by reaching out for a knuckler and hooking it up the middle for a single.
In the next inning, Jennings whiffed at two identical pitches that floated up and in on him. The third pitch was also up, but it didn't move in, and DJ lined it against the wall in the left-center gap for a double of his own. Matt Joyce and David DeJesus walked while Yunel Escobar and Jose Molina made outs. Myers brought home two of the baserunners with a single up the middle.
In the third inning, Longoria was able work a walk, advance to second on a groundout, and then advance to third on a wild pitch. With two outs, Jennings also walked, which set up an interesting play. Matt Joyce hit a fly ball to left center, and both runners tagged up and tried to advance. Both were safe, but there was a close play at second. Joe Maddon says that he never minds a player being over-aggressive, and Jennings has speed to burn, but I wonder if it would have been smarter to bluff and stay at first. Had Jennings been thrown out, it would have surely been before Longoria reached home, and it would have taken a run off the board.
The Rays tacked on a few more runs in the bottom of the fifth after a hard slide from James Loney broke up a possible one-out double play and put runners at the corners, with Jennings at first. With two strikes, Matt Joyce got a knuckleball that didn't knuckle, leading Dewayne Statts, who may still be a bit rusty to exclaim, "There goes the runner, and a hit deep to right. THAT BABY'S GONNA GO! No it isn't. It's off the top of the wall." He can be excused for thinking it was gone, as the pitch really was hammered. Joyce hit it hard enough, in fact, that Bautista had a chance to nab Jennings at the plate, and he took that chance well. The ball arrived at home first, but Jennings made an incredibly athletic popup slide and snuck his hand over Thole's tag.
In the bottom of the eighth inning, a high chop by Myers turned into an infield hit with two throwing errors. Myers was eventually able to come all the way home, and the runner ahead of him scored easily. Ben Zobrist walked for the third time and, after some aggressive baserunning, came home on a Loney sacrifice fly.
If Dickey disappointed, Price was every bit the ace we expect him to be. He threw his fastball 60% of the time, and it ranged from 91 to 95 mph. He was able to locate it on both sides of the plate at will, and the Jays hitters never seemed like they were able to get comfortable. After the fastball, Price went to his changeup and his cutter equally often, with his curve decidedly as the fourth option.
Although his pitching performance was masterful, Price finally showed a crack in the eighth inning when he allowed a single to Maicer Izturis, and then a home run to straight center by Blue Jays pinch hitter Erik Kratz. The home run pitch was an outside fastball away that maybe didn't quite get far enough away, but hitters don't get around on pitch very often. Price stayed in struck out Ryan Goins, but with the middle of the order up and Price at 102 pitches, Joe Maddon pulled him in favor of Joel Peralta. Price appeared unhappy to not have been able to finish the game himself, but the crowd appreciated his effort. Peralta was up to the task, and he made both Cabrera and Bautista look silly.
Some other notes:
- In the bottom of the second inning, Ben Zobrist hit a popup on the infield and Bret Lawrie made a routine catch. I want to give some props to David DeJesus though, who sprinted for all he was worth to make sure he would have scored from second if the ball had been dropped.
- When David Price first learned his cutter, it was a one-trick pitch. He would place it just off the back door against righties and try to coax it over the plate for a called strike. Now he appears to have much more confidence in the pitch. He and Molina weren't afraid to move the cutter around, and they located it both at the bottom of the zone and in on the hands of righties. I'm not saying this is a significant change, or that it will make Price better -- it's just something I noticed that we might want to keep an eye on as we see more of Price.
- With two outs already in the fifth inning and a runner on first base, Yunel Escobar scooped a grounder, shuffled to step on second, and then fired to first to complete the "double play." It's good to see he's in midseason form already . . .
- After running to first in his first at bat, Jose Reyes was removed from the game with hamstring tightness. Ouch for Toronto.
- Price seemed to attack Dionner Navarro (playing DH!) with a lot of changeups. Interesting that we're treating him as an aggressive fastball hitter. That was never how I thought of Navi while he was here.
- In the bottom of the seventh, with the Rays already leading by two, Esmil Rogers did a bad job of holding James Loney on first, so Loney stole second. It looked pretty easy for the big first-baseman. Later on in the inning, though, he continued his aggressive baserunning and was thrown at at the plate.
- In the eighth inning, David DeJesus was hit in the shin by a pitch. After what seemed to be a painful dive back to first, he was lifted in favor of Brandon Guyer. Hopefully he's okay.
- Note to Rays pitchers: Please do not throw Jose Bautista the same pitch in the same spot twice in a row. It doesn't matter how good you think that pitch is, he will hit it. In the fourth inning, Price tried to bust Bautista in on the hands twice, and the second one ended up bouncing off the upper deck only a few feet foul.
- Brandon Gomes, y'all. It's not just the results (two strikeouts, one single, one groundout). It's how far away from his pitches guys are when they whiff.