Minors stint just a warmup for Rays' Price

David Price might be a long shot to make it to the majors this season, but the phenom has the talent to take him to the top.

Scott Boileau | Special to the Times

David Price might be a long shot to make it to the majors this season, but the phenom has the talent to take him to the top.

VERO BEACH

It's Howl at Home Night at the ballpark, so the demographics are slightly out of whack. When the game begins, there are about 200 fans, maybe 24 dogs and eight scouts to see the phenomenon that is David Price.

What they get is the worst night of a professional career that is, oh, about 17 days old.

Price's velocity is down, and his slider looks flat. He lasts 51/3, which may be even less in dog innings.

Sometimes, this happens. Even when you're the No. 1 pick in the draft, even when your first three starts have the folks back home buzzing.

Understand, this changes nothing. It would take far more than one shaky outing to slow the momentum of a career that already appears to be in full sprint.

The Class A Vero Beach Devil Rays seem to sense this. The guy has been in town less than three weeks, and already they are hawking "Price is Right" T-shirts. They know he is not long for their world, so why not make the most of this limited time as the temporary home of fame?

The smart money has Price going up to Double-A Montgomery by the end of the month. That seems obvious if he does not blow up in his next start or two. The greater unknown is whether Price might make a Joba Chamberlain-like ascent from Class A to the Major Leagues in a single season.

"He thinks before the end of the season, he'll be pitching in the big leagues," said his mother Debbie, who flew to Vero Beach on Friday with David's father, Bonnie, to see him pitch for the first time as a pro.

"I know that's his plan."

Can it happen? Possibly, though some important pieces would have to fall in place. For instance, the Rays would have to still be in the pennant race before they would likely consider it. And, two months later, Price would have to be completely healthy and still dealing like a pitcher in need of a challenge.

It's definitely a long shot, but it's not out of the question. Not for those who have seen him up close.

"Having been around and played a little bit, you hear a lot of stories about people who are supposed to be the real deal. You say, 'Okay, but I'd still like to see it,' " said Vero Beach manager Jim Morrison, who spent 12 seasons as a big-league infielder.

"When you see David — and this is everybody who has seen him — you know this is the real thing.

"I used to watch Steve Carlton warm up in front of a dugout in Philadelphia. When I saw David throw his bullpens last year, I thought, 'Man, that's like watching freaking Lefty.' He was that good."

And through his first three starts this season, Price showed it. He began his career with 18 consecutive scoreless innings and increased it to 20 before giving up three third-inning singles against Sarasota Saturday night.

By the time he was finished, Price had given up the first three runs of his career and more hits (11) than in his first three starts combined (eight).

Still, he is 2-0 with a 1.16 ERA. His strikeout-walk ratio is a nifty 23-3, and opponents are batting .226 against him.

Ostensibly, he is in the low minors to refine his game. To gain greater command of his changeup, and to understand the nuances of pitching to professional hitters throughout a lineup. Realistically, this is just an extended warmup.

He throws in the mid 90s — though Saturday night he was more in the 92-mph range — and his slider is drawing comparisons to Scott Kazmir's. At 22, it's not a question of age. Kazmir was already an established big-leaguer at this point. What the Rays are looking for is an indication Price is physically and mentally ready to handle the jump.

Vero Beach pitching coach R.C. Lichtenstein got his first glimpse of that possibility on May 28 when Price was pitching against Pedro Martinez, who was in Port St. Lucie for a rehab assignment.

"When they were taking the field in St. Lucie and announced Pedro Martinez, the crowd went wild," Lichtenstein said. "David was still in the bullpen, and those last 10 pitches he threw were electric. It was almost like he was saying, 'Pedro Martinez: watch this.' And he went out and threw like that the rest of the night.

"You could see the focus and the fire in him. Then comes the next start when you're not throwing against Pedro Martinez, and there's only 300 people in the stands. It's obvious he didn't have the same adrenaline rush. But that's part of learning to be a professional pitcher and knowing you're going to start every fifth night."

In a way, Tampa Bay might have gotten a break with Price missing the first six weeks of the season with elbow discomfort.

The Rays are extremely cautious when it comes to protecting young arms and likely would not have allowed Price to pitch a full minor-league season and then come up for another month in September.

"It may play perfectly into their hands, if they feel he's ready," Morrison said.

Turns out, the Price is Right.

It's just a matter of when the time is right.

Minors stint just a warmup for Rays' Price 06/07/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 11, 2008 3:56pm]

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