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Tampa Bay Rays believe David Price is up for challenge against Texas Rangers in ALDS Game 3

ST. PETERSBURG — Every disappointment has an explanation. Every shortcoming has a reasonable rationalization.

So have no fear that the David Price who walks to the mound to start Game 3 of the American League Division Series late this afternoon is a more talented version of the same pitcher who nearly won the Cy Young Award a year ago.

This is true even if the wins are down and the losses are up. It is true even if the ERA has taken a slight tick upward and the reputation has taken a small step backward.

For those who are paid to watch, counsel, measure, tutor and manage him, there is no doubt Price is still one of a handful of the best pitchers in the world.

He is entirely capable of proving that today. He just needs to do it.

Do it for a 2-1 lead in the ALDS.

Do it for his teammates.

Do it for his pride.

Even before the 2011 season began there was an expectation around the ballclub that Price's numbers might take a step backward. It had nothing to do with talent, and everything to do with factors beyond his control.

Take run support, for example. The Rays scored an average of 4.48 runs while he was on the mound during each of his starts in 2010. This season, that number fell to 2.88.

There were also more ground balls that turned into hits and more fly balls that turned into home runs. Yet the more controllable measurables show improvement. For instance, Price's strikeout rate went up, and his walk rate went down.

"I know the expectations are different because he's David Price, but if you covered up his name and just looked at his numbers, you would take that line in a heartbeat," pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "If you had five guys with those numbers, you'd win the World Series."

The fastball is the same. Still consistently in the 94-95 mph range. His control is better than ever, and he has added a cutter to his repertoire.

If there has been a problem, it is how and when Price uses each pitch. He has thrown more cutters and changeups this year, and fewer fastballs and curveballs. In itself, that may not be a problem, but knowing when to throw each pitch is critical.

The catching assignments could have an impact today, as well. With a right-hander throwing for the Rangers, the Rays will start John Jaso instead of Kelly Shoppach. Price's strikeout-to-walk ratio has been much higher with Jaso (4.81) than Shoppach (2.61).

"If he just goes out there with a little better game plan," manager Joe Maddon said, "he'll be okay."

It has not gone unnoticed that Price, 26, has stumbled in some big starts. He was hammered in the regular-season finale last week when the Rays absolutely needed to beat the Yankees, and he gave up a late lead against the Orioles a couple of weeks earlier.

This is after he was the losing pitcher in two of Tampa Bay's three losses to the Rangers in the ALDS last season.

"It was tough to get over that," Price said Sunday of the 2010 ALDS. "The same team beating you twice here at your home ballpark in front of your home fans. That was a tough pill to swallow."

For a guy who walked out of the bullpen and shut down the Red Sox in critical moments of the 2008 playoffs as a 23-year-old rookie, it is silly to suggest Price cannot handle the pressure. But yesterdays tend to matter little when today looks so large.

"No one is harder on (Price) than himself," centerfielder B.J. Upton said. "I think after the last start, he's looking to do big things this time. I think he's up for it, and we're going to see the David we're accustomed to seeing."

The assignment is not simple. The Rangers have one of the best offenses in the big leagues, and they are the one AL opponent Price has never figured out.

Among teams he has started at least a half-dozen games against, his numbers against Texas (0-5, 5.48 ERA) are, by far, the worst.

And so, a year later, this is Price's chance to right quite a few wrongs. He just needs to do it.

Do it for retribution.

Do it for perceptions.

Do it because it's about time.

"To play as hard as we had to down the stretch and to play a full 162 the way we did, and to come into the playoffs and have a David Price starting for you in Game 3, is an incredible luxury," Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "He's been a huge part of our success in the past and there's no question in my mind that he's going to step up in this postseason."

It's all there for Price today.

He just needs to do it.

Stellar, except against one team

How David Price has performed against teams he has started at least eight games against:

Blue Jays129-22.06
Red Sox106-33.16

Note: Includes postseason starts

Tampa Bay Rays believe David Price is up for challenge against Texas Rangers in ALDS Game 3 10/02/11 [Last modified: Monday, October 3, 2011 8:56am]
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