ST. PETERSBURG — The reason David Price did so much better Thursday was simple.
After watching the prized prospect pitch poorly Saturday, Rays manager Joe Maddon told Price, and then pitching coach Jim Hickey, they would dispense with the detailed scouting reports, skip the usual game-planning session and just have him go to the mound, rear back and fire. The plan was, well, simple: trust his instincts, don't think too much about what he was doing, revert to what Maddon called "kind of like a primal method of pitching."
In even more basic terms: "see catcher, throw ball."
Price threw it very well, allowing just one run over six solid innings, and his teammates pitched in as the Rays completed a three-game sweep with a crisp 3-2 matinee victory over the Jays and likely AL All-Star starter Roy Halladay.
Carlos Peña got the big hit (as consolation for not getting the final All-Star team spot), outfielders Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton made challenging catches look easy, and relievers Grant Balfour and Dan Wheeler took care of the final eight outs as the Rays improved to 47-39 overall and a major-league-best 29-13 at home.
For all that has been going well for the Rays, with the offense coming back to life, the bullpen dominating and the breaks starting to go their way, the most significant development could be Price's improvement.
If the 23-year-old rookie can pitch the next three months the way he pitched Thursday, scattering six hits, striking out seven and walking one (first time in four starts he had more K's) and most importantly throwing strikes when he needed to, the challenge of running down the Red Sox and Yankees in the AL East will be easier.
"That would go a long way," Upton said. "We're going to win a lot of ball games."
Price, frustrated by his struggles, welcomed the chance to revert to a simpler style and be freed of the burden of "trying to please everybody," such as showing his changeup early in the game.
He picked up Scott Kazmir for the morning ride over from their Harbour Island condos and was relaxed and focused, ate a little when he got to the clubhouse and was determined to show what he could do doing it his way.
"Just go out there and be myself," Price said. "It's worked at every level I've been at, including last year. So just get back to what I did last year and have that same mind-set. It worked out well."
The Rays gave him a 1-0 lead in the first on Evan Longoria's RBI single, and he cruised with it for a while — not even consulting with Hickey until the third inning or so — but it got away when the Jays scored in a bit of a messy fifth. Alex Rios singled, went to third on a steal and errant throw and scored on a John McDonald double.
But the Rays came right back and loaded the bases on three singles, and Peña came up huge, going to left for a two-run double. The defense and bullpen took it from there, with a potential assist from a 20-minute power outage delay that may have hindered Halladay.
It was the fifth time since the start of last season the Rays have beaten the Jays ace, more than any other team, and dropped his career mark against them to 11-9. Any hard feelings, though, might be assuaged Monday, when Maddon is likely to name him the All-Star Game starter.
Maddon said there are no secrets except to pitch well against Halladay, and he shared that with the world Thursday morning in 134 characters on his Twitter account: Success v Halladay is mostly the result of pitching well U only beat him via pitching-The scoring will be less as w/all teams he faces
Price gave the Rays exactly that Thursday. Now he has to show he can do it again, and again, and again.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]