ST. PETERSBURG — David Price is standing in front of his locker. Well, I'm pretty sure it's David Price.
Let's get a closer look here. The beard? Yep, that's the same. The voice certainly sounds like David Price. And all the tattoos appear to be in the right places.
Okay, by all indications, this really is David Price.
But you can understand the moment of doubt, can't you?
The confident, efficient, dominating Price who has taken the mound the past three starts looks absolutely nothing like the confused, anxious, ineffective Price who stumbled so badly at the start of the season before landing on the disabled list in mid May with a triceps strain.
It's the craziest thing you have ever seen. It really is like Price left the mound that night in May, disappeared, and was replaced by a completely different person.
And a completely different pitcher.
Instead of sulking around the mound, the left-hander can't wait to throw the next pitch. Instead of nibbling around the corners, he pounds the strike zone. Instead of trying to strike everyone out, he just tries to get outs any way he can.
And, best of all for the Rays, instead of giving up hits and walks and runs, Price is putting up zeros and victories.
Tonight, the new and markedly improved Price takes the mound as the Rays start the second half in Toronto. If Price pitches the rest of the season like he has in his past three starts, he will once again establish himself as the Rays' ace, the American League's best pitcher, and the Rays will be playing well into October.
But let's go back to mid May. Price, coming off the 2012 Cy Young Award, was a mess. He looked lost without his buddy and shoulder to lean on, James Shields, who had been traded to Kansas City in the offseason. His velocity was down. His location was spotty. His mojo was clearly gone.
Maybe he wasn't 100 percent physically. Maybe he was feeling the pressure of being the clear ace of the staff. He was stuck on one victory and was struggling to get past the sixth inning. Even Price wondered what the heck was going on.
"I thought that," he admits. "But I didn't lose confidence in myself because I knew everything that I've been able to achieve thus far in my professional career."
Then, on May 15, he walked off with an injury and wouldn't return to a major-league game for nearly two months. It might have been the best thing that could have happened.
"I think the fact that this had been taken away from him for a while really has motivated him a little bit, even beyond what he is normally motivated," Rays manager Joe Maddon said.
The fact Price is having success again shouldn't come as a surprise. He's an elite pitcher. What's bizarre is how, suddenly, Price is a completely different type of pitcher.
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In his first eight starts, Price was averaging six innings and 103 pitches a game. Even last year when he won the Cy Young, Price threw fewer than 100 pitches in only four of 31 starts, and two of those came in games where he was knocked out before getting to 100.
But in the past three starts — and, granted, it's only three starts against three lousy lineups — Price's efficiency has been stunning. In his first game back, he threw 70 pitches in seven innings. Then he threw 98 and a remarkable 87 pitches in back-to-back complete games.
"There has never been a time in my life where I've been this efficient," Price said. "I was still throwing 120 pitches in high school and that was just seven innings."
It's quite the adjustment for a guy who has always tried to strike out everybody.
"To be as efficient as I have been and to be able to go as deep into the game, you kind of have to forget about strikeouts," he said. "I still know I can strike people out when I need it. But I'll take more innings than strikeouts any day."
Here's what also has changed: hitters' approaches to Price. Even Price acknowledges that batters, in the past, would be willing to wait out Price, fully prepared to take pitches, knowing he would often sacrifice location for power. Too many times Price would be down 2-and-0 or 3-and-1 then be forced to throw a strike.
These days, Price's attack of the strike zone means hitters often find themselves in an 0-2 hole almost as soon as they are in the box. Instead of sitting on 2-0 or 3-1 meatballs, now hitters are swinging at pitches outside the strike zone just to survive. Sometimes hitters, fearful of getting down in the count, are swinging right away.
"Pound the strike zone and get swings at balls, swings at pitchers' pitches earlier in the count," Price said. "That's what you want."
That means quicker outs, a lower pitch count, longer outings and, usually, victories. In his three games back, Price has allowed three runs in 25 innings and would be 3-0 instead of 2-1 had the Rays been able to score a couple of more runs.
Price should get somewhere around 13 to 15 starts in the second half. Considering he is fresh physically and mentally because of his time on the disabled list, he could be set up for 10 or more wins.
"I'm not going to say I lost it earlier in the season, but I feel good," Price said. "I feel I am where I need to be right now."
Now that sounds like the David Price the Rays will need in the second half.