BOSTON — Rays shortstop Yunel Escobar made the dazzling play that people were talking about, tweeting about and tuning in to highlights shows to see after Wednesday's 5-1 win.
But David Price delivered the performance worthy of deep thought, a 97-pitch, compete-game, five-hit masterpiece against the potent Red Sox that extended his post-disabled-list run and raised the startling possibility that he is pitching better now than last season, when he won 20 games and the American League Cy Young Award.
"It's hard to imagine a guy pitching better than he is right now," manager Joe Maddon said. "It's the strike-throwing component that has been unbelievable. … The velocity is up, everything is up. It's just a sharper version of last year."
Would Price agree?
"Absolutely," he said.
The difference, he said, is that last year he had "complete control" of just his fastball and cutter. This year he has mastered the curve and changeup as well.
"I feel good with all four of my pitches right now, and I'm throwing strikes," he said.
In his five starts since returning from the DL, Price is 4-1 with a 1.75 ERA, and he has three complete games of under 100 pitches each in his past four, the first pitcher to accomplishment that since at least 1999 (the first year for complete pitch-count data).
Price has thrown 330 of his 450 post-DL pitches for strikes, a remarkable 73.3 percent, including 72 of 97 Wednesday, luring the typically patient Red Sox out of their standard approach.
"You could see they wanted to take more pitches but they couldn't because he kept throwing strikes," Maddon said.
Price got what little help he needed in a three-run third. Rookie Wil Myers singled in the first two runs, and Ben Zobrist scored on Luke Scott's sacrifice fly.
The win moved the Rays to within a half-game of the American League East leading-Sox, with a chance to take over in tonight's series finale. They won for the 19th time in 22 games, 22nd in 27 and improved to 60-42. Since a 14-18 start, they are a majors-best 46-24 and on pace for 95 wins.
"It's always nice to be in first place," Maddon said. "I'm really more apt to read a newspaper at that point and watch TV at night."
If he tuned in Wednesday, he was sure to see Escobar's fourth-inning dazzler that started a double play. Escobar went to his left to snare Dustin Pedroia's grounder, then in one smooth motion flipped the ball behind his back directly from his glove to second baseman Ben Zobrist, who made a barehanded grab and relayed to first.
"That is the best play I've ever seen behind me," Price said.
Escobar said it was all reaction, there was no other way to make the play and he'd done one similarly in Toronto, but given the situation and the competition, it may have been his best. "I like to put on a show," he said.
So, obviously, does Price.
Maddon said after Price's rough start and seven-week DL stint, the Rays weren't sure what to expect, much less that he'd be better than 2012. "There was another level to take it to, and he's taken it to that level right now," Maddon said. "He's really arrived at that level of an elite pitcher right now. These games exceed in some ways what he had done last year."