ST. PETERSBURG — As the Rays labored through nearly five hours the night (and early morning) before for a marathon victory, David Price watched, knowing all their hard work could go to waste if he didn't do his job Wednesday.
Manager Joe Maddon preaches the philosophy that momentum depends on the next day's starter, and as much confidence as he had in the 23-year-old lefty, he acknowledged there also was some concern how Price would respond.
But Price left no doubt he was armed and ready with a dazzling six-inning outing as the Rays completed a key two-game sweep of the Red Sox with a 6-4 win.
"I wanted it bad; it's huge," Price said. "Pressure is perceived, and I love it. I love having the ball in that situation, and I was able to step up for us."
Price allowed only a pair of solo homers and pitched out of the jams he got into, showing what Maddon labeled his overall "best stuff" in terms of velocity, location, composure and use of pitches.
He had help, of course, as the Rays summoned the emotion and intensity and cobbled the kind of team win they'll depend on over the final 54 games.
Carl Crawford, celebrating his 28th birthday, and Carlos Peña, showing signs of a return to form, hit two-run homers. Pat Burrell, back in the lineup after a couple of days of remedial hitting work, and Jason Bartlett, going deep for the first time in a month, added solo shots.
There was more strong relief work, Dan Wheeler pitching out of a two-on, no-out jam in the eighth and J.P. Howell overcoming a leadoff walk in the ninth to set down the final three Sox in order. And snazzy defense, centerfielder B.J. Upton making another running catch and shortstop Bartlett tracking Mike Lowell's blooper for the final out of the eighth.
The win moved the Rays to 60-48 and a season-best 12 games over .500, and more importantly to within three games of the AL wild card-leading Red Sox (and tied with the Rangers, who lost 7-5 in their late game in Oakland).
It also put them in a good mood for today's six-hour flight to Seattle, knowing the Red Sox and Yankees will be battling in the Bronx for the next four days, meaning there's a chance to gain ground on one each day.
"We've won some emotional games, and now the threat is to go out west and not maintain that same kind of emotion and intensity, which we have to do," Maddon said. "We play better when we have that kind of look about us."
Price had that look, even if he was greeted in the clubhouse by a series of 8-by-10 photos of himself and the GEICO TV commercial caveman posted by mocking teammates.
After allowing a homer to Jason Bay in the second, Price said he decided, basically, that was all they were going to get for a while: "Take a mental picture of that scoreboard right now at 1-0 and don't let them move from there."
The impressive thing is he did it, as the Rays went up 2-1 on Peña's shot over the catwalk to right in the second, and 4-1 on Crawford's homer to left in the third, and hung on from there.
What Price did and how he did it was important not only Wednesday, but going forward.
"You talk about David, he's a young pitcher where you can see him having a couple good starts in a row, but there's always the chance of a bad one because he's so inexperienced," Maddon said. "But a start like tonight, against these guys, under these circumstances, I think can really do a lot for his self-confidence. And that's all he needs. More than anything, he needs to be confident that he is capable right now to do this at this time of the year."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]imes.com.