<
>

David Price's initial breakthrough came at the expense of Red Sox

After having to go against David Price for so many years, the Red Sox now have the lefty on their side. AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Jim Hickey doubts he will ever forget the conversation.

It was the eighth inning of the seventh game of the 2008 American League Championship Series, and the Tampa Bay Rays were using up relief pitchers like cocktail napkins in an effort to hold a 3-1 lead over the Boston Red Sox. Dan Wheeler got the first out and left-hander J.P. Howell erased David Ortiz for the second before side-arming Chad Bradford walked Kevin Youkilis to load the bases.

That was when Rays manager Joe Maddon turned to Hickey, his trusted pitching coach.

"Are we OK?" Maddon asked. "Can we do this?"

"If you want to see David Price standing on the mound in the ninth inning," Hickey said. "If you're OK with that."

"Yeah," Maddon said, one foot planted on the turf at Tropicana Field, "I am."

And with that, the now-highest-paid pitcher in baseball history got his first close-up.


Before David Price was the Red Sox's $217 million man, a Cy Young winner or even a proven No. 1 starter, he was a secret weapon.

Drafted first overall in 2007 out of Vanderbilt, Price whipped through the minors like a tornado. He made his big league debut in September 2008, one month after his 23rd birthday, and although the Rays had no room for him in the rotation, they put him on the playoff roster anyway, knowing full well that a 6-foot-6 lefty with a high-90s fastball could be useful.

Price was the ultimate X factor, a blank slate in the Red Sox's scouting report. They hadn't seen him live until Maddon used him in the ninth inning of an ALCS Game 1 loss and had minimal video from his 19 minor-league starts that year.

"At that time, he was somebody brand new," former Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek said. "He was very powerful through the zone. That's kind of all he was then, but to have that weapon, the ability he had to come in late in a game and throw strikes and be that powerful from the left side was pretty impressive."

But it was more than just Price's electric fastball that gave the Rays so much confidence. Having played in a high-profile college program, he had a polish and self-assurance that is uncommon among pitchers with such little big league experience.

"Since day one when he first came into Tropicana Field, it was obvious," Hickey said. "Extremely intelligent kid, extremely respectful. There's a number of guys that can throw 97, 98, 99 that you would never even consider putting out there in a situation like that. With David, you knew that he would be able to handle it."

Still, Maddon and Hickey weren't entirely sure how to deploy Price. A trained starter with all of six career relief appearances, he recorded the final two outs in the top of the 11th inning of Game 2 but didn't pitch in the next four games, the Rays preferring to lean on a deep bullpen that included Grant Balfour, Howell, Wheeler, Bradford and Trever Miller.

And with everyone, including starters Scott Kazmir and James Shields, on call for Game 7, Price recalls leaving his house and telling visiting family and friends, "There's no chance I'm getting in this game."

But now, with four outs to go, he was Maddon's best bet to get the Rays to their first World Series.

"Now it makes all the sense in the world because you've watched him pitch for eight years now," said former Sox backup catcher Kevin Cash, Maddon's successor as Rays manager. "But back then, you remember just the poise he had for a young player being put in that type of position. It was impressive."


The first out was the biggest.

Part of the reason Maddon called on Price, even with right-handed Balfour still available, was the matchup against lefty-swinging J.D. Drew. The count went full before Price unleashed a slider out of the strike zone. But plate umpire Brian Gorman ruled that Drew didn't check his swing, sending Tropicana Field into an ear-splitting frenzy and Price fist-pumping his way off the field.

"I get back to the dugout and sit down and I'm like, 'All right, atta baby, good job,'" Price said. "And Hickey walks over like, 'Hey, you're going back out for the ninth.' I'm like, 'All right, OK, all right. Let's do this.' I had to mentally lock it back in again."

Jason Bay led off the bottom of the ninth and worked an eight-pitch walk by laying off a slider that Price still contends should have been a called third strike.

That's when Hickey began to get nervous.

"The plan was to go out there and -- he's a 6-foot-6 left-hander, they haven't seen him -- throw 97. It's pretty difficult to handle," Hickey said. "So when he walks Bay with an offspeed pitch, I had a little bit of an 'Oh, shoot!' moment."

But that was when Price proved he would be a future ace. He froze Mark Kotsay, then struck out Varitek in an at-bat the former Sox captain would sooner forget but was able to joke about when Price signed his seven-year contract in December.

"I knew I belonged in the big leagues, but everybody thinks they belong there. It's when you get there and you have those first couple experiences. If they don't go so well, especially in a situation like that, you could have some self-doubt. It was just a good boost of my confidence. 2008 was very big. It's definitely a big reason I am who I am today."

David Price

"Tek was like, 'Don't think you're big stuff because you struck me out. That's been done a lot,'" Price said. "It's all in good fun."

Said Varitek: "The electricity of that stage, so much at stake, the game didn't speed up on him. You had to commend the kid, the man, and he obviously showed enough fortitude to deserve that chance."

Price got Jed Lowrie to roll into a fielder's choice for the pennant-clinching out, and the coming-of-age moment was complete.


A year later, Price became a full-fledged starter for the Rays, and in 2012, he went 20-5 with a 2.56 ERA and copped the AL Cy Young Award. Since 2010, he ranks second among AL starters in strikeouts (1,332) and innings pitched (1,299⅓) and fourth in ERA (2.97).

And now, he's the No. 1 starter the Red Sox haven't had since they traded Jon Lester midway through the 2014 season.

In all likelihood, Price would have reached those heights without his postseason experience in 2008. But he admits it was a springboard to helping him get there, ironically at the Sox's expense.

"I knew I belonged in the big leagues, but everybody thinks they belong there," Price said. "It's when you get there and you have those first couple experiences. If they don't go so well, especially in a situation like that, you could have some self-doubt. It was just a good boost of my confidence. Two thousand and eight was very big. It's definitely a big reason I am who I am today."