It appears that David Price has found a new between-starts pitching routine.
The oft-derided lefty, criticized both in Boston specifically and in the playoffs more broadly, faced the defending champion Astros on Thursday, starting on short rest for the first time in his postseason career and taking the mound just a day after throwing a few dozen warm-up pitches during the late innings of Boston’s white-knuckle victory in Game 4 of the ALCS. Price had never before won a playoff start, in 11 tries, and he had never before managed a scoreless start or struck out nine in a playoff game, either.
Yet he ticked off all of those feats and much more at Minute Maid Park, silencing Houston’s restless bats for six innings and clinching Boston’s first pennant in five seasons via a 4–1 win. “I think it will just make me a little more sharp,” Price said Wednesday night about his unusual warm-up pattern for this game. “It might be a new thing for me to do the day before I pitch.” As Price showed on the mound Thursday, he couldn’t have been more on the mark.
Despite entering Game 5 with a 3-1 series lead, Boston still faced a potentially tumultuous road toward advancement. With ace Chris Sale sidelined due to a lingering stomach illness, Astros ace Justin Verlander — whose team had won seven of his eight playoff games since he moved to Houston last year — was set to pitch unopposed by a worthy counterpart. Win that game, and Houston could return to Fenway Park with Gerrit Cole lined up for Game 6, and then anything could happen in a theoretical Game 7, especially if Sale remained compromised.
And Price seemed the least likely option to prevent at least the first step in Houston’s comeback plan from coming to fruition. His playoff struggles are well documented (at least as a starter; he has excelled in relief in October): 11 starts before Thursday with an 0–9 record, 6.16 ERA, and 1.31 WHIP in those games. So far in 2018, he had lasted just five outs against the Yankees in the ALDS before being pulled, and he had surrendered four runs in 4 2/3 frames against Houston in Game 2 of the ALCS.
But Thursday’s start began with a less stressful first inning than that to which Price had become accustomed, as he navigated the terrifying top of Houston’s lineup — now complete with Carlos Correa back in the cleanup spot — with two strikeouts and just one hit allowed. He struck out the side in the fourth; went three up, three down in the third, fifth, and sixth innings; and held Alex Bregman, George Springer, José Altuve, and Correa to a combined 1-for-11 line with six strikeouts. After walking four batters in his first start of the ALCS, Price faced just one three-ball count all night and threw 70 percent of his 93 pitches for strikes.
Price’s changeup once rated among his best weapons, a tumbling bit of deception that left batters flailing and helped him control opposite-handed hitters. Between 2015 and 2016, it was the third-most-valuable changeup in the sport, by FanGraphs’ accounting, but he had generally lost its feel in 2017 and 2018. It returned in force on Thursday, though, as Price threw 39 changeups, making it his most frequent offering, and the Astros whiffed on 12 of them and produced incredibly weak contact on the rest of their swings. He hadn’t thrown such a high percentage of changeups in a game in his career.
He hadn’t done a lot of things before Thursday, though — all of them positive, and all of them necessary for Boston to put away the Astros. A lesser-rested Price outdueled a fully fresh Verlander, and in the process laid a giant, pennant-winning wrench in his porous playoff narrative. In all likelihood, Price’s next start will be back at Fenway Park in the World Series. It’s a good bet that he’ll throw a fierce bullpen session the day before.