ST. PETERSBURG — Already, the doubts had turned to whispers. Soon, the whispers would turn to moans. Eventually, those moans were going to turn into full-blown derision.
When a career seems to be going the wrong way, this is its soundtrack. One day, the talk was that David Price was promised tomorrow, and everyone agreed he was on his way to being another CC Sabathia. The next, he was yesterday's news, and he seemed to be stumbling down the Scott Kazmir career track.
As quick as a raised eyebrow, it seemed, Price had been marked down to half-price.
Then came Tuesday night, when a young pitcher restaked his claim as a one of the finest in the game.
For the Rays, it is difficult to imagine a finer sight than Price looking the way he used to look. He was explosive again. He was efficient again. He was there until the end again.
To sum it up, Price was dominant again in Tuesday night's five-hit shutout over the Angels, and it has been far too long since anyone suggested that of him.
Yeah, this is how he used to look — explosive and efficient, blistering and baffling. Once again, Price was in command of the game, of his fastball, of the altered perceptions of his place in the game.
"I needed that," Price said. "I needed to get that feeling back. It gets old coming out in the sixth inning."
As the words left Price's lips, you could imagine fans across Tampa Bay shouting, "Amen." In his three previous starts this season, Price had been pulled once in the seventh, once in the sixth and once after three innings.
The result was that unsettled feeling that Price was underachieving. After all, he was second in the Cy Young Award voting only two years ago. How could he have been only 12-13 last year? How had he been less than dominant this year?
Granted, that has been the cause of much of the grumbling about Price. He was so good so fast that, by now, some expected him to be unhittable. Finish second in the Cy Young voting and people tend to expect dominance every year.
Remember what a ball of fun Price was two years ago? Remember how good he was in the big moments? Remember how he etched the initials of former teammate Tyler Morrissey (who was killed in a car crash) on his glove? Perhaps it means something, but Tuesday was the four-year anniversary of Morrissey's death.
For the record, Price was aware of it, too. He talked to the Morrissey family before the start. Again. As he often does, he used Morrissey's memory as motivation. Again.
In other words, yeah, he's the same guy.
After the game, Rays manager Joe Maddon studied the Rays statistics and shook his head.
"He's 3-1 with a 2.63 ERA," Maddon said. "People have been, like, kind of criticizing him a little bit. Those are pretty good numbers right there. When you're that good, there are a lot of high expectations attached to that kind of skill level. A guy like that has a kind of a speed bump, and it's exaggerated a little bit."
Maybe. But Price is also as talented as any pitcher on the staff, and it's hard to imagine the Rays making a run at the postseason if he struggles. When a pitcher gets off to a slow start after an unsatisfying year, people are bound to notice.
"Absolutely, it's out there," Price said. "That's in all sports. Everyone has critics. But I'm my own worst critic, so it didn't bother me."
Tuesday night, nothing seemed to bother Price, least of all the Angels. Maddon has suggested before that Price was still learning which of his pitches to use when, but for a night, he seemed to have figured it out.
Even more important, Price didn't waste a lot this time. In his first three starts, Price would struggle through innings throwing 29-30 pitches. This time, he didn't throw more than 18 in any one inning, and he had six innings in which he threw 14 or fewer.
In all, it was a start that suggests a restart. If Price keeps pitching like this, yes, the Rays can contend. If Price keeps pitching like this, yes, the Cy Young voters may remember his name.
As for Price, yes, his expectations are as high as they have ever been.
"I don't see why they wouldn't be," he said. "I'm throwing the ball just fine."
Fine, he said. Finally, some might add.