ST PETERSBURG // He was in college last year, in the minor leagues last month, in the recesses of the bullpen last week. And now he heads into the World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies. It has been a rollercoaster 12 months for the Tampa Bay Rays' David Price, which continued on Sunday as he kept his cool to close out the victory over the Boston Red Sox that secured the American Series.
And it is set to continue in the opening game in Tampa tonight. Not bad for a guy with five weeks in the major leagues, with no saves. And not good for the other guys - you have not seen him, and good luck hitting him. "He has been in our back pocket," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "It's a great weapon to have." Maddon knows full well how October can turn on the deployment of a surprise rookie pitching weapon. In 2002, as the Anaheim Angels' bench coach, he saw Francisco Rodriguez show up in September and dominate October, and he saw John Lackey win Game Seven of the World Series on short rest.
So Maddon did not bother to worry that Price was a rookie, that he was not a proven closer. "It is a matter of who the young guy is," Maddon said. "Any young guy can handle it if they have that kind of make-up. John Lackey rode in on his horse with a 10-gallon hat. Frankie came up with all the bells and whistles." Price came up as the can't-miss phenom. The Los Angeles Dodgers selected him out of high school in the 19th round, after he said he had told scouts he would attend college and asked them to stop calling.
"I changed my voice mail," he said. "I was getting calls in third period." He pitched three years at Vanderbilt, in his hometown of Nashville, and the Rays took him with the first overall pick in last year's draft. He did not sign in time to play in the minor leagues last season, so the Rays got their first look at him in spring training. His fastball touched 100 mph, and he struck out the side in his debut, but the Rays knew they had something extra special when their veteran closer and mentor, Troy Percival, introduced Price in a team meeting and told him to tell a joke.
Price, known to that point as the quiet left-hander with the loud fastball, made Percival the butt of the joke. "He absolutely slammed him, in front of the whole group," Maddon said. "At that moment, he won over Percy and everybody else." He had another moment on Sunday, when Maddon decided Price would be right. The Rays had already gone through four pitchers in the eighth inning, the Red Sox had the bases loaded, and Maddon summoned Price to protect their 3-1 lead.
Evan Longoria, the Rays' rookie third baseman, walked up next to Price. "This is what you were born for," Longoria told him. "This is what you have played baseball your whole life for." Not that Price needed a laugh, and not that Longoria was trying to get one out of him, but Price chuckled anyway. This was Longoria, two years removed from Long Beach State, presenting himself as a sage. "And I am older than him," Price said. By six weeks, anyway. Longoria turned 23 two weeks ago.
Price faced JD Drew, who had hit a two-run home-run off Tampa Bay closer Dan Wheeler during Boston's seven-run comeback in Game Five of their series. Price struck out Drew. He retired the Red Sox in the ninth inning, striking out two more, then found himself suffocating beneath a bundle of joyous bodies. This does not necessarily mean Price will close for the Rays in the World Series. Maddon said he would have removed Price in favor of right-hander Grant Balfour had Dustin Pedroia come up. Maddon also said Percival, who has not pitched since Sept 28 because of injury, could be activated for the World Series.
Six Rays pitchers had at least one save during the regular season. Price got his first career save on Sunday, eight days after he got his first career victory. In the regular season, he has neither a save nor a victory. "We have nine or 10 guys in the pen," Price said. "I don't think Joe has any problem throwing any one of them out there. If someone gets in trouble, I could be out there in the third or fourth inning."
* Newsday Visit www.thenational.ae/sport for pictures from the World Series