ST. PETERSBURG — Monday afternoon, David Price certainly didn't appear too burdened about having the Rays season resting on him when he starts tonight's fifth and final game of the AL division series against the Rangers.
Running around Tropicana Field in shorts and a T-shirt, Price was anything but, laughing and joking and dealing with more pressing matters at hand, chasing down — and cleaning up after — his French bulldog, Astro.
That Price, at 25, in his first full season, could look so relaxed then is exactly why the Rays expect him to be so intense, determined — and effective — tonight.
"I just saw him actually earlier (Monday), and he's not walking around any different than he would be normally during the season," catcher John Jaso said. "And that's good to see."
Price has made it annoyingly obvious to everyone around the team all weekend how badly he wanted to get back on the mound — offering to pitch in relief Saturday, suggesting he could start Sunday — to redeem himself for his ineffective Game 1 outing.
"It was pretty rough," Price said. "It stung a little bit. I definitely wanted to give us a better chance to win. I wanted to throw better for myself. I wasn't able to do that. And they got the ball back in my hand, and I appreciate that. And I am looking to coming in (tonight) and throwing a good game for us."
Or, as fellow starter Matt Garza said: "He wants payback, and I'm looking forward to watching him get it."
That Price can have that approach and yet not get overly hyped is part of what makes him special. (Well, that and being left-handed with a 98-mph fastball.) This is the same guy, after all, who spends four days a week bouncing around the clubhouse and goofing off in the dugout like a 14-year-old, then on the fifth day performing like a grizzled veteran.
"He's so, at least he shows me, such incredible calm in these moments; that's what I get from him. And at the same time, incredible intensity," manager Joe Maddon said.
"Coming into this situation, I think he'll channel everything properly. … He's not going to try to do too much, but he'll try to channel everything in the right way and go back to the basic David."
The Rays have their reasons to feel that way, going back to his relief assignment in Game 7 of the AL Championship Series, his dazzling mid-September duel with New York's CC Sabathia, his All-Star Game start. Also, the pressure he put on himself going into his Sept. 28 start after creating a controversy by posting the night before on his Twitter account that attendance at the Trop had been "embarrassing."
"I think probably for him in his mind, this is the biggest start of his career, and it might be," pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "But after he made the attendance comments, he was extremely, extremely conscious of the fact that he might not be received well. He was more nervous for that game than I'd ever seen him before, and he came out and pitched lights out."
Price, a 19-game winner this season, didn't do that horribly in Game 1, allowing five runs on nine hits (including a pair of home runs) while working into the seventh. It wasn't his pitches that were necessarily bad, but the situations he put himself into by falling behind too many hitters and having to throw fastballs in fastball counts. Twice, for example, he gave up big hits on 3-and-0 counts.
But it wasn't good enough for his team to win, which meant for Price — who goes into each start expecting perfection and scrolling back from there — it simply wasn't acceptable.
What made it worse was not knowing if he'd get the opportunity to try again. Unlike a bad start during the regular season, Price couldn't just wait the five days for his next chance. And the combination of the uncertainty and the potential of a long winter's remorse was killing him.
"He's been a mess," bench coach Dave Martinez said. "He's wanted to pitch every day."
Amid all the smiles after Sunday's Game 4 win that extended the series, Price's may have been the brightest. "Everyone's happy," Hickey said, "but I think he's probably happier than everybody else to get another shot at redemption."
Said agent Bo McKinnis: "David wants the ball in games like this."
And reliever Randy Choate: "I think he lives for these moments."
The Rays, obviously, didn't want to be playing Game 5 tonight, preferring to have swept the Rangers and be preparing for Friday's championship series opener with the Yankees.
But after losing the first two games at home then keeping their season alive with consecutive elimination-game wins in Texas, they couldn't be more thrilled to be here.
Nor more excited to have Price on the mound.
"This is all we can ask for right now," Maddon said, "to have David pitching."
"He's the guy that I want out there," third baseman Evan Longoria said. "You want your guy who's been the best for you out there all year. Without a doubt, Dave has been the best for us. …
"I can't express how happy I am that he has another chance to do what I know that when he closes his eyes at night, what he wants to do the next day."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]