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BOSTON – At a quarter-past midnight, as he walked down the empty Fenway Park concourse, a 72-year-old man in a leather jacket and a tidy button-down started to talk about October. The sullen masses had exited the stadium already, their nights ruined by another meek performance from a pitcher who has majored in them. The man nodded. He had seen plenty of pitchers ruined in October.
“I don’t want to be critical of David Price,” Reggie Jackson said.
Because he doesn’t know David Price, Jackson said, he couldn’t understand his mindset, his preparation, his approach – any of the attributes that, coupled with a ferocious swing, allowed Jackson to earn his Mr. October nickname and forever serve as an authority on all things postseason. What Jackson could do, he said, is talk about his own experiences.
And it was interesting, in the aftermath of the New York Yankees’ 6-2 victory against the Boston Red Sox that evened the best-of-five American League Division Series at one game apiece, to put his words alongside Price’s – the best of October and the worst. Which, following Game 2 on Saturday, might not be an exaggeration: After getting yanked by Boston manager Alex Cora following 1 2/3 ugly innings, Price’s career numbers in 10 postseason starts looked like this: 0-9 with a 6.03 ERA.
His competition for the title of sorriest playoff starter includes Jaret Wright (7.77 ERA) and Tim Wakefield (6.45). Neither was given the largest contract for a pitcher in baseball history. (Price was.) Neither has won a Cy Young Award. (Price has.) Neither comes with the stature of David Price. (Price does.) Pitchers who sign seven-year, $217 million deals – and who, in their introductory press conferences, address their past playoff failures by saying: “I think I was just saving all my postseason wins for the Red Sox” – are held, rightfully, to a different standard, one that cannot be explained away by small sample sizes or the cagey whims of October.
Those, Jackson said, can be tamed.
“After a while, when I got to be 32 or 33, I started believing in October,” he said. “That I’m not worried about what I’m doing because I know I’ll be right then.”
While a decade ago Jackson’s self-aggrandizement might’ve been regarded as pure bluster, researchers who study the brains of athletes believe more and more that a so-called clutch gene exists. They’ve seen enough incremental improvement through brain training that they regard it as a muscle, capable of being built and likewise atrophying, and that limiting the chasm between mental and physical empowers athletes to succeed.
There will always be winners and losers, sure. It’s just extraordinarily rare to see a loser like David Price, someone with worlds of talent who metamorphoses during playoff starts into an unspeakably bad version of himself with no tangible, evidence-based explanation. Because the two clearest commonalities of this recurring decay are types of game and performance – playoffs and awful, respectively – the two have been conflated and have grown to define Price.
Everything is always pointing toward October, and Game 2 offered another chance to raze the can’t-do-it-in-the-playoffs edifice he’d built. Thirty-six minutes in, Price slunk from the mound into the dugout. Boos cascaded. The 33-year-old took off his cap, then put it back on. He inhaled through his nose, exhaled through his mouth, tapped his chest. His eyes looked down the entire time. He had faced 10 hitters and recorded five outs. The other five batters went home run, home run, walk, walk, single. And with that, Cora went to commence Price’s one final walk: of shame.
“My spirits aren’t down,” Price said. “My confidence isn’t down. I’m looking forward to getting back out there and getting another opportunity.”
The sanguinity was admirable for someone coming off the shortest playoff start of his career. On the 10th pitch of Price’s night, Aaron Judge demolished a 91-mph cutter 445 feet, his third home run in as many postseason games, to stake the Yankees a quick lead and frazzle the nerves of the 39,151 at Fenway. Gary Sánchez led off the next inning with a home run, and after a pair of groundouts, Price’s spiral continued with walks to Gleyber Torres and Brett Gardner. Andrew McCutchen whacked an RBI single off the Green Monster on Price’s 42nd pitch, and Cora had seen enough, even knowing he would need to get 22 outs from his bullpen the day after a 5-4 victory in Game 1 taxed it.
“If I don’t like it,” Price said, “I need to pitch better, period.”
It won’t exactly take a lot. Cora said he intends on keeping Price in the Red Sox’s rotation should they advance to the AL Championship Series. He called Game 2 “just a bad outing” and said “he didn’t make pitches” and that “he’s bounced back before.” And whether it’s a feint or he really believes it, Cora uttered three words that, following Saturday night, don’t exactly pass the smell test: “We trust him.”
Because how can they? How, when Price has been given opportunity after opportunity to pitch even reasonably well, can they turn to him in what’s essentially a three-game series with two of those games at Yankee Stadium? Price declared himself available for Game 3, and he did twice last year pitch exceptionally in playoff relief outings. With Rick Porcello and Nathan Eovaldi pitching the road games and Chris Sale primed for Game 5, Boston doesn’t need Price to start until the ALCS.
Even then, Cora knows this is a performance-oriented business, and had Eduardo Rodriguez thrown well and not yielded a monstrous 479-foot home run to Sanchez in the seventh inning, perhaps the notion of inserting him into the ALCS rotation and using Price as a super-reliever would have been bandied about. To do that with a player who has four years and $127 million remaining on his original contract could be problematic, though winning a World Series takes heaps of problem-solving.
It’s what you do in October. The games are more intense, the cheers stronger, the boos louder, the pressure tighter – everything everythinger. Jackson remembered back to the Game 2 of the 1978 World Series, when he stood in against Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Bob Welch in their famous showdown that ended the game with a strikeout.
“I knew people were standing. I knew people were screaming and yelling and loud. I never heard ‘em,” Jackson said. “I only had to focus on Welch, because he was all I could handle. I never heard the crowd. I know it was loud, but I didn’t hear it. I was totally making sure that I had the barrel crossing the plate when the baseball was coming my way, and there was nothing that was gonna get in the way of that. All the preparation, all the focus. There wasn’t any twitching. I was completely settled.
“I said to Aaron Judge today, I enjoy watching you play because you’re changing constantly. You’re quiet at home plate. There’s not a lot of fuss. You’re in the box, ready. I can see the manifestation of maturity. I can see you getting better.”
He’s right. Judge is getting better, which is scary considering how good he was already. He is controlling October the way he controls the regular season. Judge is seamlessly fusing the two. He is doing Mr. October-type things.
And David Price? Well, he’s just being David Price.
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