ST. PETERSBURG — If the snapshot was of David Price's final moment on the mound in Sunday's 3-1 series-sweeping win over the White Sox, he didn't look too good.
Price was coming down from the group jump the Rays starters do to celebrate a complete game while rookie Chris Archer, leading with his shoulder, was still on the way up, forcing Price to reach out awkwardly to prevent what could have been a nasty collision or fall.
"If 'Arch' was a little bigger, or Price was a little smaller, he would have got taken out," Jeremy Hellickson said. "But that was our first one of the year, so we were a little rusty."
Everything else Price did on the mound leading up to that went smoothly, however, as the Rays continued to roll through the American League's weakest. The Rays won their fourth straight game and eighth of their past nine to improve to a season-high nine games over .500 at 49-40 and move into second place in the East for the first time since April 8.
The lefty ace made a second impressive start since returning from his seven-week stint on the disabled list. He scattered eight hits while striking out five in a 98-pitch complete game, just the third Rays pitcher to complete a nine-inning game without a triple-digit pitch count.
Pitch efficiency was a key factor, just as it was in Price's return Tuesday at Houston, where he worked seven shutout innings with 70 pitches. Not coincidentally, he had no walks in either game.
"Just pounding the strike zone," manager Joe Maddon said. "When you have that kind of stuff and put yourself in favorable counts, it really makes it tough on hitters to narrow you down. So the two games he's pitched since coming back, pitch efficiency and strike-throwing ability has really been impressive, to say the least."
That's pretty much, Price said, how he plans it. "That's the way I want to attack a game," he said. "Put the pressure on their offense, get ahead, try and get as many unbalanced, uneasy swings as I can and try to force weak contact."
The Rays took a lead the old-fashioned way, by executing. Desmond Jennings, sizzling since returning to the leadoff spot last Monday (.414 with nine runs in seven games), opened the game with a double and moved around on a bunt and a sacrifice fly by All-Star selection Ben Zobrist.
The Rays added a run in the fifth on a single, a walk and a broken-bat hit by Sean Rodriguez, then another in the seventh when Luke Scott tripled and Jose Molina, who also threw out two potential base stealers, delivered a sac fly.
Price's velocity was down a bit from Houston, and he wasn't as sharp on the corners, but he allowed just the one run on a mistake to rookie Josh Phegley in the sixth.
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With 78 pitches through seven innings, Price had his sights on the Rays' first complete game of the season and hoped Maddon would give him the chance.
"It's very important," Price said. "Every fifth day I want to go out there and go nine; that's just my mind-set."
The framework was laid in Houston when Price was taken out after the 70 pitches in a nod to post-injury caution. He asked Maddon what they'd do if he pitched similarly Sunday. "He kind of laughed and looked at me and said we'll have to adjust to that situation if it comes up," Price said.
Knowing how much Price values complete games, Maddon was willing to be flexible, to a point. When Price threw only eight pitches in the eighth, Maddon let him start the ninth at 86, albeit with closer Fernando Rodney at the ready. Twelve pitches later, Price had it.
Now he just has to work on the postgame moves.
"That was the first one we had all year," Price said. "So that's kind of (our) fault for not being able to practice before this."
. Fast facts
David Price's performance Sunday marked several occasions:
. The Rays' first complete game of the season
. Price's first complete game since Sept. 25, 2012
. Price's first win at Tropicana Field since July 19, 2012 (seven starts in between)
. The sixth nine-inning complete game with fewer than 100 pitches in team history (four by James Shields, one by Jeremy Hellickson)
Marc Topkin, Times staff writer