ST. PETERSBURG — You cannot survive the length of a baseball season without a certain amount of faith. The summer is too long, and the disappointments are far too many.
So you accept there will be shortcomings. You learn to brace for the heartaches. And you try to find some name in the scorebook worthy of your unconditional trust and devotion.
In Tampa Bay in 2010, that was David Price.
And that is why a loss in Game 1 on Wednesday seems so crushing.
The Rays needed this game. Absolutely, positively, can't-live-without-it, needed this game. Not because they were at home. Not because Game 1 sets such a huge tone in a best-of-five series.
The Rays needed this game because Price is the pitcher who carried the Rays when the rest of the rotation was falling down and the offense was playing hide-and-seek. They needed this game because Price was a rare constant every fifth day.
Think of it this way:
Since June 1, the Rays were 16-5 in games started by Price.
They were 46-43 in games started by everyone else.
"I wasn't at my best today," Price said, "and it's tough to swallow."
You should not have been surprised by Cliff Lee on Wednesday. He is an ace, and he pitched like one.
And you should not have been surprised by the Rays offense. Strikeouts and blackouts have been all too common.
You should not even have been surprised by the home-plate umpire guessing at a call based on a batter's reaction. Considering recent history, that seems to be included in the fine print of every umpiring handbook.
But when it comes to Price's performance, you had every right to leave the park bewildered.
He has been so dependable for so long, you took it for granted that he would hold up his end of the bargain on Wednesday. That doesn't mean losing the game was out of the question, but you figured it would at least be 3-2 or 2-1.
The wrong end of a 5-0 score in the fifth inning just doesn't seem to fit in Price's world.
He hasn't given up that many runs in a start at Tropicana Field in more than a year. And he certainly hasn't been hit that hard when the stakes have been raised and the spotlight has been turned up.
The truth is, Price has excelled when asked to play the role of Tampa Bay's ace. Throw him out there against CC Sabathia, and Price is a monster. Have him face Roy Halladay, and he turns it up a notch.
In seven previous starts against Sabathia, Halladay and Lee, Price was 4-0 with a 1.79 ERA. And, more importantly, the Rays had won every single one of those games.
"Yeah, I'm surprised he gave up five runs because we've come to expect him to give up three or less," pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "But it wasn't like he got beat up out there."
The consensus in the clubhouse was that Price looked like his normal self Wednesday. He was throwing in the mid 90s. His curveball got a handful of called strikes, and he wasn't out of the strike zone all that much.
If you want to pinpoint a problem, you might consider Price's choice of pitches. This is a predominantly fastball pitcher, and the Rangers are one of the league's best-hitting teams against the fastball.
So a slight adjustment of the game plan might have been expected. Perhaps an acknowledgement that it wasn't going to be business as usual.
Yet instead of mixing in more off-speed pitches, Price actually relied on the hard stuff even more than normal.
He threw fastballs on 39 of his first 43 pitches and, for the afternoon, went to the fastball more than 80 percent of the time. It was a 93-mph fastball that Jeff Francoeur hit for an RBI double in the second. It was a 93-mph fastball that Nelson Cruz hit for a homer in the third, and a 95-mph fastball that Bengie Molina knocked out of the park in the fourth.
Price came in with a pair of high fastballs on 3-and-0 counts, and both times they were turned into RBIs.
"If he didn't fall behind, he probably would have done a great job," shortstop Jason Bartlett said. "But when you fall behind to that lineup over there, they're going to sit on that fastball."
There is one other possibility.
This was Price's worst performance since he gave up seven runs to the Yankees on July 18. Other than the lethal nature of both lineups, the common denominator was the amount of rest going into those starts.
The start against the Yankees was after the All-Star break, which means Price had 10 days off other than his brief appearance in the All-Star Game. Wednesday's start came after seven days off, other than a brief relief appearance against Kansas City.
"I didn't feel too strong," Price said. "I really don't know what it was."
The Phillies have a one-game lead in their NL division series against the Reds because Halladay threw the second no-hitter in postseason history Wednesday. The Rangers have a one-game lead in this series because Lee gave up one run in seven innings of work.
And the Rays are in a virtual must-win scenario this morning because, after all this time, their ace finally came up short.
John Romano can be reached at [email protected]