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A rocky road for Rays’ leading man
Yep, even Cy Young Award candidates have their bad days, and Price’s came during his freshman year at Vanderbilt University, which he attended on a scholarship and majored in sociology.
“I thought about stopping,” Price said. “I was a little bit burned out. [I] wasn’t having much fun.”
Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin remembered back when Price was struggling.
“I think he was just like a lot of kids who come in,” Corbin said. “He was awed by the academic intensity and probably the baseball intensity. I think both areas hit him hard, initially.”
Corbin pointed out that Vanderbilt isn’t the easiest college to jump into, based on the school’s academics and the other schools the Commodores compete against in athletics.
“You’ve got a Ivy League-type school academically, and then you’re participating in the SEC, which is a very strong conference,” Corbin said. “So for him, he was elevating himself in both regards and may have not been prepared for it. But who really is?”
Price’s frustrations came to a head after he experienced a tough outing during a January scrimmage during his freshman year. The day had been cold and damp, and Corbin had to stop the inning that Price had been pitching in due to his struggles.
“At that point, I think he had just kind of lost it emotionally,” Corbin said.
Corbin didn’t see Price after practice.
“He’d gone home, I got a call from his father,” Corbin said. “He said David wanted to meet with me the next morning.”
At the meeting that took place the following morning, Price told Corbin he was done.
“He was going to leave,” Corbin said. “He didn’t really know what he was going to do. But he had come to the conclusion he just wanted some time to get out of here and do something else.”
Corbin wasn’t sympathetic toward him, initially.
“I was more hard-lined,” Corbin said. “I was like, ‘This is not what you came here for and this is not the son your parents raised — you’re not a quitter. With help from many people, mostly yourself, you’re going to get through this and you’re going to see the dividends from it.’”
Price eventually found his groove as he remembered, “I just started having fun again.”
“I realized how much fun I had when I played as a kid,” Price said. “I started treating it like a game again.”
And the rest is history.
Price has never been better for the Rays than he was Tuesday night against the Orioles, when he pitched eight scoreless innings en route to Tampa Bay clinching a playoff berth.
Talent helped Price reach Tuesday night’s pinnacle, but in addition to his immense talent, Price has a blue-collar work ethic, and nobody on the team is as competitive as the 25-year-old.
Fellow starter James Shields tells the story about wanting to dig at Price’s competitive juices earlier in the season. Upon seeing Price chewing on a heaping wad of gum, Shields asked how many pieces he’d loaded into his mouth and was told “six.”
So Shields went to the bubble-gum bucket and loaded up until he had seven pieces of Dubble Bubble in his mouth. Once Shields informed Price that he had one more piece of gum in his mouth than he did, Price went back to the bucket. And Shields followed suit.
This exercise went on until they each reached the mid 20s, at which point Shields finally realized, “He wasn’t going to quit until he won.”
Price went through his freshman season at Vanderbilt as a relative unknown. But that didn’t last long. His progression would see him become the top college player in the country, enticing Tampa Bay to use the No. 1 pick of the 2007 Draft to select him.
Price made a rapid ascent through the Minor Leagues and joined the team late in the 2008 season. In the 2008 American League Championship Series, Price was converted into a weapon out of the bullpen, which paid rich dividends when he saved Game 7 against the Red Sox to thrust the Rays to their first World Series.
In Spring Training 2009, there were questions regarding whether Price would be in the starting rotation or serve as the closer. At the end of camp, he was neither.
Tampa Bay began the 2009 season with a starting rotation of Shields, Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza, Andy Sonnanstine and Jeff Niemann.
Price ended up getting sent down to season a little further at Triple-A Durham.
“I kind of knew what was going to happen,” Price said. “I really didn’t think I was going to be up here. And Niemann did a ridiculous job last year. That’s just part of it. Hopefully I’ll be healthier because of it.”
Rays manager Joe Maddon explained some of what was going on with Price and why he did not make the Rays out of Spring Training last year.
“When you come out of college with that kind of velocity, you throw the breaking ball, you’re going to get a lot of chase,” Maddon said. “So you get to pro ball, so maybe some of these pitches that guys have been chasing are now being taken. And now we’re getting into really bad counts, and when that begins to happen, you let up to get it over.
“It’s about throwing your fastball — not only throwing it for a strike, but where you want to throw it for a strike. Then everything plays off of that.”
Tampa Bay promoted Price on May 25, 2009, and he went on to post a 10-7 record with a 4.42 ERA in 23 starts. Included in his work was a 7-3 record with a 3.58 ERA in his final 12 starts.
“He started making steady progress,” Maddon said. “As the season progressed, the fastball really started going where he wanted it to.
Beyond that, he was able to throw other things for a strike when he was in a fastball count, which is part of the development of the breaking ball.
“When you do get behind, you’re not just forced to be able to throw another fastball. He got to the point where he was throwing other pitches than the fastball in a fastball count, and he was throwing them well. And that led to the success also.”
Price had more of a simple analysis of what happened.
“I just started throwing like myself,” Price said. “I just threw better. I was thinking about so much stuff, being pulled in every direction. Finally I just took a stand for my stuff.”
As good as Price was in 2009, he’s continued to improve throughout this season to where he now is a major contender for the AL Cy Young Award, with a record of 19-6 and a 2.73 ERA entering Saturday’s game at Kansas City
When asked about the difference in Price from the 2008 postseason to Tuesday night, Maddon pointed to fastball command.
“And, of course, [he has] more experience,” Maddon said. “But the ability to throw his fastball when he wants to — and also the curveball wasn’t there either. … He’s gotten his feet on the ground better in the Major League sense. Primarily, the repetition of his delivery is better. The ability to throw his fastball where he wants is much better. And he has a real curveball, which he never had.”
While Price had some aspects of his different pitches that needed refinement, confidence never was a problem. Price always felt like he belonged.
“That’s the thing about David and a lot of good young players, they … [are] ‘I belong here’ guys,” Maddon said. “‘I belong here’ guys can really help you win.”