The Red Sox seemingly have made history left and right this season, hiring a barrier-breaking, tone-setting manager and then romping to a club-record, MLB-leading 108 wins. And should the pattern from the first two games of the World Series hold, that history-making will likely repeat itself.
If Boston wins its fourth championship in 15 years, the world will get the first commemorative DVD to prominently feature a bullpen warm-up session for a pitcher who never entered the game. Because that’s what finally turned the postseason tide for one David Price.
For years, the Red Sox starter with the hefty salary has carried around a postseason ERA to match (5.42 in his first 19 appearances). Although he pitched well in relief in the second season, he went 0-9 in starts (with his team going 0-10 when he toed the rubber first). It got to a point, he admitted before Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday, that he dreaded talking to the media before his playoff outings.
Because he knew what was coming. And he had no idea how to answer the inevitable questions.
On Tuesday, with a postseason win under his belt—thanks to a dominant six-inning, no-run, three-hit, nine-strikeout outing in Houston in Game 5 of the ALCS—Price was asked whether he’s having more fun, if he feels lighter.
“I guess ‘lighter’ is a good word, yeah,” he said. “Yesterday, we had media day. [And] I got to look forward to it for the first time in a long time. Today, it’s definitely a weight lifted off of me …”
Price paused briefly, mid-response, and as if to prove the point, made a joke.
“... not like food tastes better, or anything like that,” he said, drawing laughs. “But it was time. And I’m definitely glad that time came and we moved past it.”
Red Sox fans, still skittish despite recent evidence supporting Price’s claim, might have had reason to doubt whether Price had in fact moved past his postseason struggles for good. After all, what’s more trustworthy: what someone did the first 19 times or what someone does in that 20th outing?
And so when the left-hander loaded the bases in the fourth inning on Wednesday night, clinging to a 1-0 lead, he needed to prove he wouldn’t buckle. He promptly gave up the lead, Matt Kemp lifting a sac fly and, two batters later, Yasiel Puig jumping on a first-pitch fastball to plate the go-ahead run with two outs.
“We had him,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “We had him on the ropes.”
But Price struck out Austin Barnes to strand two, capping the damage and hanging around.
“That was very important,” Price said, holding his young son at the postgame podium. “I made a lot of good pitches in that inning. They hit some, they took some. That was a tough inning. It could’ve spun out of control pretty fast. It’s been one of my Achilles heels, especially in the playoffs. … Being able to stop it at two ... that was big for us.”
And ultimately, what Price provided was enough to help Boston claim a 4-2 win and a 2-0 series lead.
Not so long ago, the idea of Price joking at a postseason podium seemed about as likely as … well, him winning a postseason start for the first time.
The 33-year-old, who signed a $217 million, seven-year deal in 2015, has had an at times contentious relationship with the Boston media, some members of which use his contract as a cudgel whenever he struggles. Take the much-publicized confrontation with former Sox closer and current color commentator Dennis Eckersley. Price laid into Eckersley on the team plane after taking exception to something the broadcaster said about fellow starter Eduardo Rodríguez, lobbing expletives and sarcastic remarks the then-62-year-old’s way.
There are two ways to take what Price did: as a veteran standing up for a younger teammate he feels is being unfairly criticized, or as an overpaid, petulant underperformer demonstrating thin skin and a misunderstanding of the temperature of the town.
The reaction in Boston was swift and overwhelmingly trended toward the latter. And though the dustup with Eck has since been cleaned up, Price heard boos from the Fenway stands as recently as his start against the Yankees in Game 2 of the ALDS.
And though he left to an ovation with two outs in the fifth inning of his Game 2 start against Houston in the next round, Price got a little irritated by one postgame question:
Reporter: I think after that first inning you sort of disappeared in the dugout for a second. Was there anything emotional going [on]—what was the mind-set right there?
David Price: I do that every inning. I go down to the bottom [in the dugout] after every inning.
Price could’ve said it was nothing special, that it’s just part of his routine, that he goes and watches video, studies up on the next part of the lineup. He could’ve answered the question and ignored the subtext, the suggestion that there was something more going on, something emotional. That he’s not mentally tough enough to win when the temperatures fall and the bright lights are trained on him.
But that’s not David Price. He’s fiercely proud, he can be confrontational, and the combination of the two means he’s often brutally honest. All the October failure took a toll on him, and it showed.
It’d be too simplistic to say that Price looked like a new man in Game 2 of the World Series. He looked like David Price, throwing fastballs inside and dropping his changeup under opponent bats. He didn’t allow a hit for the first three innings, and after getting touched up for two in the fourth, set down the last seven batters he faced in order.
And thanks to the Red Sox offense clawing out another two-out rally, scoring three in the fifth, he left with a lead, to an ovation. His final line put him in some pretty decent company:
David Price is the 4th pitcher in @RedSox history to go at least 6 innings and allow 3 or fewer hits in consecutive postseason appearances, joining Derek Lowe (2004), Pedro Martínez (1999) and Jim Lonborg (1967). pic.twitter.com/r6EHe1UVh5— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) October 25, 2018
“This is the biggest stage in baseball,” Price said, asked about winning a World Series game. “There’s no other stage that’s going to be bigger than pitching in a World Series game, unless it’s Game 7 of the World Series. ... I’m pumped for myself, pumped for all my teammates and coaches for us to be two wins away. … that’s a good feeling.”
The unexpected renaissance of one of the best starters of the 21st century began in that now-famous bullpen.
Warming late in Game 4 in Houston, Price worked up quite a lather as he got ready to enter the game in case Craig Kimbrel couldn’t finish the Astros off. And during that throwing session, the veteran said he found something in his delivery that helped it “flow a little bit better” and “just put me in position to execute every pitch.”
Specifically, Price found the feel for his changeup—a pitch he threw 22 percent of the time in the regular season but only 23.8 percent against the Yankees in the ALDS and 11.25 percent against Houston in his first start of the ALCS. In Game 5, he threw the pitch 43 percent of the time—generating 12 swings and misses with it.
The change gave hitters another pitch to worry about, the Astros couldn’t adjust, and all of a sudden Price looked like the pitcher who’s top 10 in bWAR, wins, winning percentage, strikeouts, innings, and ERA+ among pitchers with at least 1,000 innings pitched and 60 percent of their appearances as a starter since 2008.
Price stuck with that pitch mix Wednesday, throwing changeup after changeup and largely shelving his cutter.
“Today he was amazing,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. “Like I said in Houston, I get it—the numbers and all that. But this guy is a great pitcher. He’s been one of the best pitchers in the big leagues for a while. And he cares.
“On a personal note, I’m very proud of him. … He beat the Houston Astros in Houston. He beat the Dodgers here in Fenway Park. So I’m happy for him because he deserves it.”
Yes, when he needed an out in the fourth he couldn’t get it at first. And if the Boston offense hadn’t continued its two-out magic act, the Price postseason narrative might well have reverted to prior form.
Price leaves after 6 innings with a 4-2 lead. Yet a couple minutes ago, he was trailing, 2-1. Does the Red Sox three-run rally in the fifth dictate how we assess Price's October performance? And if it does not now, would it have a week ago? If so, that's kinda weird.— Alex Speier (@alexspeier) October 25, 2018
But baseball is a zero-sum game. Price did limit the damage, his teammates did do some of their own, and the Red Sox bullpen didn’t allow a baserunner in the last three frames of the game. Now Boston holds a 2-0 lead as the series shifts to Los Angeles, and if the Red Sox return to Fenway with more games to play and Price on the mound, the story lines will strike a different tone.
“He wasn’t happy when I took him out after the sixth, I’ll tell you that,” Cora joked.
In a twist worthy of an overdramatized corporate branding project masquerading as a championship keepsake DVD, neither were Boston fans.