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Tampa Bay Rays' David Price zeroes in on bright future

ST. PETERSBURG

This time, he made you think about the playoffs. This time, he made you think about the Cy Young award. This time, he made you think about all those movies with showdowns in the streets and sword fights in the castles.

This time, David Price made you think about the future.

The marvelous breakout season of Price continued Monday night when he out-aced Rangers star Cliff Lee in a 6-4 Rays victory. Price didn't get the win, but once again he proved that he belongs in any conversation about the best pitchers of the American League.

And the best part?

Someday, Price is going to be even better.

For now, this was good enough. It was terrific stuff, the Price-Lee duel, one of those battle-of-the-stars matchups you get when two teams are playing games that matter in the middle of August. There had never been anything quite like it around here. Never had two pitchers started when both had at least 10 victories and when both had earned-run averages under 3.00.

Already, Price had started the All-Star Game, and already, he had broken the franchise record for most victories in a season. But he had never been in a head-to-head face-off that made the rest of baseball stop and look.

Just wondering, but how many of these sorts of duels do you think await Price in the years to come?

For six innings, Price was something to see. Good hitters didn't bother him, and bad luck couldn't faze him. For instance, there was one moment in the sixth inning when, somehow, Sean Rodriguez lost a ground ball in his shirt. Yep, in his shirt. Somehow, the ball bounced off his chin and inside his jersey. Talk about being stuck in the ivy.

That loaded the bases. Also, it seemed to annoy Price a little bit. Facing former Ray Jorge Cantu, Price threw five fastballs of 96, 96, 96, 98 and 98 mph and struck out Cantu to retire the side.

"I needed to step up right there," Price said. "If I give up a single, the game is tied. If I give up a homer, we're down two. I wanted to take care of that one myself."

Walking off the mound after the strikeout, Price looked as if he were in command. The game, like his fastball, seemed to be comfortably in his grip. And then it was gone. Price gave up a double and a walk to start the inning, and then he sat down with a few things to think about.

Price is 24, after all, and there are still things for him to learn. Fastball command, for one. When pitching coach Jim Hickey talks about the growth of Price, that's where he starts. Price needs to be a little more pinpoint, a little more efficient.

Because of that, Lee is probably the best pitcher in the league for Price to study. Lee has uncanny, almost freakish command of his pitches. He's like watching one of those trick shots from a carnival. You know, the guy who shoots the symbols off the playing cards while they spin around on a wheel.

The result is that Lee almost never walks a batter, and because of it, his pitch count is always within reason, and his starts go deeper than most of his rivals'.

Take Monday night. Lee walked only one batter, his 10th of the year. Price walked five, which isn't unusual. He's fifth in the AL in walks allowed. Lee threw 23 balls out of 98 pitches; Price threw 43 out of 109. In other words, if Price can tighten that up, his six-inning start becomes a seven-inning start.

"I definitely wanted to go deeper in that game," Price said. "I wasted 20-25 pitches on walks. When I get to 0-2, I need to finish guys off."

Yes, this is asking a lot. When pitching coaches talk about command, they are subdividing the strike zone into tiny little targets. In other words, they want the ball to go very fast through a very small hole.

"You're talking about saucer-sized targets," Rays manager Joe Maddon said.

"You're talking about throwing a 2½-inch baseball into a 6-inch hole," Hickey said.

Imagine opposing hitters trying to hit Price if he becomes that kind of sharpshooter. Imagine him squeezing seven or eight innings out of his 109 pitches. Imagine the kind of hardware he would pile up.

"David is going to get there," Maddon said. "As he gets older, he's going to figure it out. When he does, he's really going to take off."

As it is, Price is pretty darned good. Say what you want about Lee, but he did give up six earned runs. That leaves Price in good position in the Cy Young race, and it leaves the Rays in great position in their race toward the American League East title. Put it this way: Who else do you want pitching to Cantu with the bases loaded and the ball smelling of Rodriguez's cologne?

Just Price.

Around here, he's still the pitcher in command.

Tampa Bay Rays' David Price zeroes in on bright future 08/17/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 17, 2010 9:15am]

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