ST. PETERSBURG — David Price was soaking in the hot tub about 3 ½ hours before last Sunday's start when bullpen coach Stan Boroski walked into the training room in the Rays' Comerica Park clubhouse and told him manager Joe Maddon had to see him immediately.
"I'm like, 'Right now?' " Price said. "And he's like 'Yea, he needs you right now.' "
Price — to that moment — had done quite well in not letting the oft-rumored and very real possibility of a trade enter his head. He doesn't listen much to the constant chatter, read more than an occasional tweet or TV scroll about it, allow it to occupy much bandwith. "I don't cringe," he says, defiantly.
But that all changed as he got out of the tub, wrapped a towel over his shorts, and took what suddenly was a long walk down the hall.
"I'm like, "Did I get traded?' Stan just looked at me, and the look on his face, he didn't know. He was probably a little worried about it as well," Price said. "So I went in there and Joe goes, 'Hey, you're an All-Star. Congrats. I just wanted to let you know.'
"I was like, 'F-f-f-f ' … I was like, 'Oh, my God.' And then I was like, 'All right.' "
Price has certainly thrown well enough — perhaps the best of his career — to earn his fourth All-Star selection, though he won't pitch Tuesday in Minneapolis as a stomach bug pushed his Saturday start back until today, forcing him to opt out of active duty (replaced by ex-Ray Fernando Rodney) but still participate in the festivities. He has gone 4-1 with a 2.03 ERA over his past five starts to improve to 8-7, 3.42 overall, and has become a dominant strike-thrower, leading the majors with 159 Ks.
That he has done so well amid speculation that the next call, text or tap on the shoulder could send him packing has made it even more remarkable.
"Really impressive," Maddon said. "The self-confidence and self-awareness, and the ability to focus in the moment, are pretty extraordinary."
Pitching coach Jim Hickey and teammates rave similarly. So, too, does former Rays mate James Shields, who pitched several Julys under similar circumstances.
"It definitely weighs on you," said Shields, a close Price pal. "It's definitely a tough thing, definitely a distraction. … You're getting asked all these questions by the media and you just don't know what's really going on. You have no idea. You're hearing your name all the time, having your name brought up.
"As a player, you just have to stay focused, and he's been doing a great job of not letting it affect his pitching."
Price, acknowledging some "bad mood" days a few weeks ago, has also made a point of not letting the situation alter his congenial clubhouse personality.
"It's definitely in the back of our minds, and just watching David handle the whole situation it's been real surprising that he can continue to be the leader that he is and be the good teammate that everyone knows him to be, even with all this circumstance swirling around him," pitcher Alex Cobb said.
"I've seen other guys that have not dealt with this as team-friendly as him, because it's easy to hear a team is trying to deal you and just be mad at everybody. In David's case, he's become an even better teammate."
Price, 28, said it's the least he can do, given the obviously awkward circumstances — or at least the perception, depending on what team officials decide — that more Rays wins lessen the chances that he gets dealt.
"I don't want that leaking over into me being who I am in the clubhouse or on the bench," Price said. "I can't let what I'm going through affect everybody else on the squad because that's when stuff gets really bad."
In other words, he doesn't want the next few weeks to become his own personal The Price Is Right show.
"The last thing I want them doing is thinking about if we don't win I could be gone," Price said. "I don't want Longo (Evan Longoria) up at the plate thinking he needs to do something special in order to keep me a Ray. I want everybody to go out and continue to play baseball the way we have over the past three weeks, and hopefully things will sort themselves out."
The only thing Price can control is his pitching. So he takes refuge on mound, where he can shut out all the noise and focus on his quixotic quest for perfection.
"I just want to keep getting better," Price said. "I'm never satisfied with really anything. There's never a start of mine that I'm just completely happy about. I'm definitely happy after some of my starts, but, honestly, I feel like right after the game a lot of times I'm in a worse mood when I pitch good as opposed to when I pitch bad, because I know I can pitch better.
"I just want to continue to grow in baseball. And I know in order to do that I can never settle for what I'm doing right now."
That's been pretty good, obviously, with a 79-46 record, 3.22 ERA, and a Cy Young Award to go with the four All-Star selections on his stat sheet.
"He's in his peak in every way," Hickey said. "He's in his peak physically. He's in his peak mechanically. He's in his peak maturationally, if that's a word. He's in his peak gameplan-wise. He's in his peak execution-wise.
"He's pitching the best he probably ever has in his career, and it's for a reason — all this stuff is starting to come together now."
All of which makes it even tougher for the Rays — who started Saturday nine games out of a wild-card spot — to imagine taking the field sometime in the next couple weeks without him.
"He's such a critical part to this team," pitcher Chris Archer said, "that if something like that did happen, I mean, it would be upsetting because it would be almost like, we don't think you can do it."
As much as Price insists he doesn't pay much attention, he knows, too.
"In reality, that's what it is," Price said. "That's reality. As long as they're not thinking about it while they're out there on the field, that's okay. I get it. Nobody wants me to leave. I don't want to leave. It's just part of the business."
Contact Marc Topkin at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Rays.