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David Price takes small step in Rays' preseason

BRADENTON

As first steps go, this one was not particularly dramatic. Confetti did not fall. Rockets did not flare.

It was a small step, if you want to know the truth. If history remembers it at all, it will remember that it came in a fairly forgettable spring training game on a fairly forgettable afternoon.

Ah, but when David Price stepped toward the pitcher's mound Saturday afternoon for the first time this spring, it was at least a nice stride forward. Which, as they say, is a start.

For Price, it was a step toward a new season.

Who knows? Perhaps it was also a step toward the old him.

For the Rays, it is hard to imagine any direction that is more important. When the Rays decided not to trade Price in the offseason, everyone was so pumped by the news that they seemed to forget what a long, frustrating year last year was for Price.

Ah, but if the Rays are to make any noise at all this season, it is hard to imagine them doing it without a terrific year from Price. That is why he is still here. That is why they brought him back. Because Price at his best is still the finest pitcher in the American League East. Because Price at his best is still the core pitcher in the Rays' rotation.

Those were the kind of thoughts you entertained at 1:16 p.m. Saturday when Price walked toward the mound at McKechnie Field to face the Pirates. He pitched only 12/3 innings, and he threw only 33 pitches, and he didn't strike anyone out.

But that's the thing with Price. When he pitches, you can imagine all those nights when the lanky left-hander might carry his team into the late innings. He is still the finest pitcher who has ever pitched for the Rays, and if this is his farewell tour with Tampa Bay, you would like to believe it will be a good one.

Ask Joe Maddon. The Rays' manager has been mesmerized this spring by Price's sessions in the bullpen.

"I see an incredible focus about him," Maddon said. "A real regeneration of the previous David. The easy smile. The relaxed appearance. The face. His bullpens have been unbelievable. They've been like games, they've been so precise."

Ah, but to be fair, Maddon was also impressed by Price last spring, too, when Price was coming off his Cy Young Award-winning season. And Price got off to a dreadful start. He won only one of his first five decisions, and his ERA ballooned to 5.24. Then came an a triceps strain that cost him 44 games.

"I think there were a lot of things going on internally with him," Maddon said. "There was winning the Cy Young, and there were all the expectations going into last year that everyone thought would be his last year here. There was some angst right there."

Maybe. Maybe not.

Ask Price about what he might have learned from last year and he simply shrugs and says, "Stay healthy. I didn't feel good last year. If I can throw every five days, things will work themselves out."

Regardless, Price felt much better when he came back after his injury. He went 9-4 with a 2.53 ERA. He was first in the American League in that span in innings pitched, in complete games, in strikeout-to-walk ratio, in fewest walks per nine innings, in fewest pitches per inning.

Yeah, that's the guy the Rays wanted back, all right.

Hey, it gets harder than a spring training debut. Price will get most of the showdown starts this year. He'll be the guy the Rays want to pitch on their most important nights. But for now, it was just a beginning.

"It's the first time there are fans," Price said of his spring debut. "There's no turtle out there. You don't have the L-screen. You don't have (pitching coach Jim) Hickey behind you feeding you the ball. It feels like a game for us. Yes, it's spring training, but we're still ultracompetitive, and we still try to protect our craft."

Hey, no one is going to question that the Rays have a nice rotation after Price, too. But without Price, Matt Moore, Jeremy Hellickson and David Archer had problems getting deep into games last year. Price grants his team a lot of balance when he pitches. He saves a lot of wear on the bullpen.

Perhaps that shouldn't surprise anyone. On the Rays, Price is known as one of the best teammates. Oh, don't be fooled by the size of the bubbles he blows or his grin coming from the top row of the dugout. He is fiercely loyal to his teammates.

Maddon talks about it and starts rolling back the years, to 1994, when he broke into the big leagues as a coach, to '76 when he was a minor-league catcher. Even given all those memories, Maddon says Price is one of "the top 10 teammates" he has ever seen.

"You talk about his performance and how good he is," Maddon said. "Absolutely, that's true. But I think that at the end of the day, if you're remembered by your peers as far as being the one of the best as far as supporting them, picking things up when necessary … that's high praise."

This year Price gets one more chance to be there for the Rays.

The better he is, the better they are.

David Price takes small step in Rays' preseason 03/01/14 [Last modified: Saturday, March 1, 2014 9:23pm]

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