ST. PETERSBURG — For rookie left-hander David Price, the last couple days have been "like one huge dream."
"And I haven't woken up from it yet."
There was Price's late-inning heroics in the pennant-clinching victory in Game 7 against the Red Sox on Sunday night, when he escaped a bases-loaded jam by striking out J.D. Drew in the eighth. He calmly got the final three outs, two on strikeouts, for the save — the first of his career — before becoming the bottom of the megapile mound celebration.
Then, after getting four hours sleep (thanks to playing Mario Kart with his nephew), Price attended a rally Monday afternoon in Tampa for Barack Obama and introduced the presidential candidate.
And that may have marked the only time in his whirlwind rookie season that the former No. 1 pick showed nerves.
"Public speaking is my enemy," Price said with a smile. "I'd rather come in with a 3-0 count with the bases loaded in a tight game when you're on the road."
It was Price's performance Sunday that likely will be forever etched in Rays lore. Price, 23, having appeared in just seven big-league games this season — two this postseason — struck out Drew on four pitches, the last a nasty 97 mph fastball off the outside corner that had Drew looking bad on a check swing.
Price, a former Vanderbilt star, said it was a moment he has "lived for" and his college coaches prepared him for, but it meant a lot to him that manager Joe Maddon trusted him with the most important outs of the season. Maddon said he had a good feeling after a pregame chat with Price, who "could have been wearing a Vanderbilt jersey he was so calm."
Said Price: "For him to have that confidence in me, and to show everybody in the world he's putting a 23-year-old lefty that's pitched in seven games in his major-league career out there to try and stop a rally for the Red Sox with the bases loaded in the eighth inning — that's awesome."
His teammates had the faith, too. Catcher Dioner Navarro asked Maddon before the ninth to leave Price in. Rookie Evan Longoria approached the 6-foot-6 southpaw before the inning: "He told me this is what I was born for," Price said. "And that's coming from — I'm older than Evan. He's a rookie. He doesn't act like it, he doesn't play like it."
Price hasn't pitched like a rookie, with teammates raving about his stuff and presence ever since his dazzling debut in spring training at Legends Field, when Price struck out three while hitting 95-98 on the radar gun. Price, the 2007 top pick, was called up in September and made a solid start against the Orioles and four regular-season relief appearances. But Price has saved the best for the playoffs, when he picked up his first career win in a 9-8, 11-inning victory in Game 2 of the ALCS and, now, a save.
"Unbelievable," Rays reliever Grant Balfour said. "To do what he's done and come this far in such a short time, he's showing he's worth every bit of what they're paying him. … He's the man right now."
And Price was more than happy to be the man at the bottom of the pile in Sunday's celebration, even though he joked he was "gasping for air" and thought he was "going to die."
Said Price: "I wouldn't trade that (moment) for anything in the world."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.