The AL CY Young Award winner eventually calmed down and pitched three-hit ball for seven innings in an 8-0 win over the Astros. Afterward, Price, who won 20 games last season, made a bold statement.
“That’s probably the best I’ve felt on a baseball field maybe in my entire life, honestly,” he said. “I felt like that’s the most control I’ve had of a baseball game in a very long time. I think that was better than I threw the ball really at any point last year.”
Desmond Jennings homered and tied a career high with four RBIs to help the Rays shut out Houston for the second straight game and win their fourth in a row.
Price (2-4) had missed the last 44 games with a left triceps strain in his first-ever stint on the DL. But he showed no signs of rust, allowing a season-low for hits and striking out a 2013-best 10. Eight of his strikeouts were called, which ties his career high.
“He did it easily,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He wasn’t out there laboring. The fastball was there with good life at the end. He finished off every pitch well which means his arm felt great. Just pretty much a complete performance.”
Maddon had said he’d be happy to get six innings out of his ace before the game, but Price was so efficient he got through seven with just 70 pitches. His low pitch count left Maddon in a quandary.
“I didn’t know what to do, really,” he said. “I mean 70 pitches after seven innings. The up and downs matter, but you’re trying to stretch the guy out pitch-count wise. You’re really caught in between right there. We felt that after the seven innings that would be enough just physically on him.”
Three relievers combined to finish the four-hitter, a night after the Rays two-hit the Astros. Tampa Bay hasn’t allowed a run for 23 straight innings— since Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera launched a homer into the Rays’ Touch Tank in the fourth inning on Sunday.
Jennings, who finished with three hits, had a two-run single in the fourth to make it 3-0 and his two-run homer in the sixth pushed the lead to five runs.
Price credited Jennings for helping him settle down after the first inning. Jennings was only joking when he asked him if he was nervous, and was shocked when he said he was shaking.
“But you couldn’t tell,” Jennings said. “It didn’t look like it. He lives for it. He’s a competitor and he loves to be out there.”
Houston starter Erik Bedard (3-4) yielded six hits and four runs with a season-high six walks in 5 1-3 innings.
Price had a tough time in his nine starts before the injury, winning just once in that span.
On Tuesday he looked crisp from the start, pitching a 1-2-3 inning before J.D. Martinez singled to start the second. But he still faced the minimum through two after Brandon Barnes grounded into a double play.
He struck out the first two in the third before a single by Jimmy Paredes who was soon caught stealing to end the inning.
The 27-year-old Price really got rolling after that, retiring 12 of the last 13 batters he faced with five strikeouts. Houston’s only hit in that stretch came on a single by Carlos Corporan with one out in the fifth.
The Astros have been in an offensive funk lately, and haven’t scored in 21 consecutive innings. But that run was unearned, leaving them without an earned run in 29 innings. They’ve managed just four earned runs over the last five games.
But Houston manager Bo Porter thought Tuesday’s struggles were less about his team and more about Price.
“I think it’s called, Mr. Price,” Porter said when asked what was wrong with his offense. “That’s why he’s a Cy Young winner. And he pitched like it tonight.”
Tampa Bay’s Evan Longoria had two singles in his return to the lineup after missing three straight games with plantar fasciitis in his right foot. The All-Star third baseman was Tampa Bay’s designated hitter against Houston as he continued to struggle with the condition. He was replaced by a pinch-runner after his single in the ninth.
Jennings led off with a single before Sean Rodriguez drew a walk. Longoria walked with one out and Tampa Bay took a 1-0 lead on a sacrifice fly by Wil Myers Bedard limited the damage by striking out Escobar.
Loney extended his hitting streak to 13 games with a one-out single in the fourth inning. Jose Molina walked before Loney advanced to third on a groundout. The single by Jennings, which sailed just out of reach of a diving Jose Altuve and into shallow right field, sent two home to extend the lead to 3-0.
Molina doubled to start the sixth and Bedard was replaced by Josh Fields with one out. He was greeted by the towering homer by Jennings, which bounced high on the wall in left field, to leave Tampa Bay up 5-0.
NOTES: Tuesday was the second time this season and the seventh time in franchise history that the Rays have thrown back-to-back shutouts. … Houston 1B/DH Carlos Pena returned to the team after missing two games following the drowning death of his nephew in the Dominican Republic, but he did not play. … The series continues on Wednesday when Houston’s Bud Norris opposes Roberto Hernandez … Houston optioned RHP Hector Ambriz to Triple-A Oklahoma City and recalled LHP Brett Oberholtzer from there on Tuesday. … The Rays optioned INF Ryan Roberts to Triple-A Durham on Tuesday to make room for Price on the roster. … RHP Mark Appel, the No. 1 overall selection by Houston in the 2013 draft, will make his professional debut on Friday with Class-A Tri-City.