ST. PETERSBURG — To get to the best part of David Price's fresh start, you must begin with his shakiest moment of the night.
It was then, in one of those moments where the mound is so hot it smells as if bacon is frying, that Price made his strongest argument that this season will be better for him.
At the time, however, it should be pointed out that Price was in trouble. The Yankees were having one of those noisy innings they are capable of, and there were runners on the corners, and the lead had been cut in half, and there had been a wild pitch, and there had been an error, and Derek Jeter was walking toward the plate.
In pitching, the technical term for this is called: "Excuse me. I really, really need to go the bathroom."
For Price, who failed on several occasions to hold onto a lead last year, it was a particularly intriguing moment. After all, great pitchers find a way out of messes. Dominant pitchers calm the moments when the unraveling is at hand. Cy Young candidates — and Rays manager Joe Maddon believes Price will be one again this season — somehow find a way to get the boat to shore.
Five fastballs later, and a groundout by Jeter, and Price had passed his first real test of the year. Eventually, he got his first win, spreading five hits and allowing only two runs, and he allowed the Rays to beat the Yankees for the second straight day, this time 8-6.
"The thing I liked about David is that he kept his composure well there (in the fourth inning)," Maddon said. "Nothing started going too quickly for him. I think that's a growth moment for him right there.
"During the game, some things are going to go against you. Stuffwise? It's great every time he pitches. But you have to have composure in those moments."
This is who the Rays need Price to be once again, that ruthless competitor who seems to thrive in pressurized moments, particularly in games against AL East opponents (Price is 24-9 against the division). In a career that is just getting started, Price, 26, has won a lot of games and struck out a lot of batters. But his finest moments have been measured by big pitches in big moments. It didn't matter who the opposing hitter was, or who the opposing pitcher was. Price took the mound as if he was daring the other team to chase him off of it.
"I was very happy to get Jeter out right there," Price said. "I had to stick out my bare hand to slow down his ball. (Shortstop) Reid (Brignac) said he would have had it anyway, but still."
Price, and the Rays, will tell you that his 2011 wasn't nearly the tumble that some have made it out to be. He fell off by seven wins, and his ERA was higher, and batters fared much better with runners in scoring position. But his strikeouts were up, and Maddon will tell you Price was more of a professional pitcher than he was in 2010, when he finished second in the Cy Young voting.
"I threw the ball fine last year," Price said. "I would take the pitcher I was last year over the pitcher I was in 2010. Hands down, I was a better pitcher. It just didn't come together."
Said executive vice president Andrew Friedman: "If you isolated David's 2011 to the things he could control, we think he was better in 2011. Each year, he has gotten better, and we still think he has another gear in there."
Still, something seemed to be missing. Killer instinct, perhaps? The ability to make a small lead look big? Focus? Luck?
Certainly, victories were missing. Price hadn't won a game since Aug. 28. That includes seven starts (counting the playoffs), and he had a lead in four of those. He hadn't won a home game since July 15.
This time, Price was back in control. He threw a fastball on each of his first 19 pitches, which also had to be a comfort to Maddon, who thought he tinkered too much with too many pitches a year ago.
"I'd like to see him more primal," Maddon said.
This will do. Once again, Price looked like a conqueror on the mound. Once again, he devoured the pressure. Once again, the game rested in his left hand.
Once again, it looked safe there.