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PRICE HASTENS GROWTH CURVE

Lacking his best stuff, the rookie still helps the Rays beat Roy Halladay again.

Manager Joe Maddon has said you have to pitch really well in order to beat Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay.

On Sunday, rookie left-hander David Price did just that, outdueling the former Cy Young winner for the second time this season and lifting the Rays to a 3-1 sweep-clinching victory in front of 20,937 at Tropicana Field.

With the Rays one loss (or one Red Sox win) from being eliminated from the postseason, the fact that Price experienced another growth moment Sunday was most significant.

Price, 24, admitted he didn't have his best stuff but finally showed confidence in his curveball, which Maddon said the rookie threw more often and more effectively than he has seen.

"He's learning how to pitch now as opposed to just throw," Maddon said.

And Sunday wasn't just a step toward that: "That's the quantum jump," Maddon said.

"The point is he's able to pitch without his best fastball and win in a close game against a very good pitcher. There's all kinds of good stuff attached to that."

The Rays (77-73) picked up their fourth straight win and became the first team to beat Halladay four times in one season. Tampa Bay won five of the six meetings against Halladay, with rookies Price and Jeff Niemann picking up two wins apiece. It wasn't easy as Halladay picked up quality starts in five of those six outings.

"Beating him four times in your life is tough," said Rays catcher Gregg Zaun, a former battery-mate of Halladay's. "Four in one year is pretty amazing. He's unbelievable. He's by far the best in the game."

Maddon talked to Price before the game about incorporating another pitch. Zaun said Price usually throws good curveballs in the bullpen but loses it in the game. Price acknowledged that he has been "more miss than hit" with the pitch this season, where it was "almost an automatic ball whenever I threw it" because he didn't have much feel for it or wasn't that comfortable.

Sunday, Price felt comfortable with it and let it go. So much so that Zaun said Price, who usually shakes him off to throw fastballs, was shaking him off to throw the hook.

"I finally threw my curveball, threw it for strikes, threw it for swings and misses, and I threw it when I needed to," Price said. "That's big for my confidence."

It also helped that Carl Crawford gave Price an early lead with a two-run homer in the first, continuing his success against Halladay. Crawford's a career .345 hitter against him, which is the third-best of any batter against Halladay. How does he do it?

"If I knew the answer, I would never stop," Crawford said. "I really couldn't tell you why. It's just one of those things."

Halladay (15-10) didn't give up anything else after that, stranding the bases loaded in the sixth and getting out of a jam in the seventh when two Rays runners were thrown out on the bases.

It was enough for Price (9-7), who struck out just two in 62/3 innings before the bullpen put together its third straight scoreless outing. But Maddon was pleased Price didn't try to force anything and, as a result, "was not working hard to get his outs."

"It was kind of nice to see him take advantage of this opportunity to work on something," Maddon said. "It was almost like instructional league in a sense, where you don't want to go out there and pound fastballs when you know you can do that. He needs to do this a little bit more consistently, and he did."

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