HOUSTON – Never will the line of thinking that cast David Price and Clayton Kershaw as pitchers who can’t win big games in October die, because to bury it once and for all, 1,000 feet in the ground, right where it belongs, would require a commitment of sports fans to logical thinking, and a fundamental feature of fandom is blind, giddy, willful irrationality. Sports warps brains. It is mania and depression mainlined. Gray areas do not exist in the sporting world, which is why Price and Kershaw were banished to the netherworld of postseason rejects.
To see a period of 24 hours in which Price followed a brilliant Kershaw playoff start with the finest one of his career, then, made for a hearty helping of cognitive dissonance. Rest assured, this is no bizarro existence. It is baseball, a sport grounded in the unthinkable turning real. In, say, David Price sending the Boston Red Sox to the World Series.
Fifteen years ago today, remember, the notion of the Red Sox simply appearing in the World Series was laughable. They were still trailing the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series. Then history happened, and now, three championships later, they will get a crack at a fourth. That the cosmology of this run happens to include Price’s daring six shutout innings in Thursday night’s 4-1, pennant-clinching victory in Game 5 of the ALCS against the Houston Astros is fitting, because a decade-and-a-half-long stretch of success comes as much with the unforeseen as it does the routine, and David Price unleashing the finest start of his playoff career in this setting, at this time, is infinitely more the former than the latter.
“It’s one of the most special days I’ve ever had on the baseball field,” Price said in the afterglow of the Red Sox’s win at Minute Maid Park in front of 43,210. The entire night, on the surface, was as perfectly backward as the attendance figure. Price, statistically the worst postseason starter in baseball history, with an 0-9 record and 6.16 ERA in playoff starts entering the game, was facing Justin Verlander, who entered with a scoreless streak of 24 innings in elimination games. It was a mismatch rooted far more in the past than the present.
And that’s important to note when considering the postseason careers of the 33-year-old Price and 30-year-old Kershaw, the Los Angeles Dodgers ace with far more playoff successes than Price but enough failures that a reputation attached itself to him like a parasite. To say that in October Price and Kershaw have not pitched up to their standards, or in some cases merely well, is true. To say they cannot is wrong. Have not connotes what already is etched in stone. Cannot falsely foretells an unwritten future. It presupposes that they are incapable of learning, evolving, doing all of the things that have won them Cy Young Awards and All-Star Game appearances and plaudits as two of their generation’s finest left-handed pitchers.
It blatantly ignores what Price did Thursday. Not just limit the Astros to three hits while striking out nine and walking none. Those numbers were a function of an approach so radically different from his two October starts this season – from any of the 300 previous games he had started in his major league career – that any future denial of Price’s willingness to change will be rooted in bad faith.
After his first start in Game 2 of the Division Series, in which he lasted five outs, Price and Red Sox pitching coach Dana LeVangie discussed the possibility of him relying more on his changeup. This was no small ask. Changeups are the ultimate feel pitch. They require supreme amounts of self-assurance to throw. Hitters salivate over bad changeups, which hover in the strike zone like batting-practice fastballs. To throw more changeups would take a confident David Price. A confident David Price in October was an oxymoron.
The first time he faced the Astros, in Game 2 of the ALCS, Price used his changeup on just nine of 80 pitches and generated one swing and miss with it. He got one of those by the second batter of Game 5. And then another the next inning. And as the game wore on, as he matched Verlander zero for zero, another and another and another. And by the end of his night, when Red Sox manager Alex Cora dared not tempt fate and subject Price’s spotless evening to a blemish, he had thrown his changeup 39 times and induced 12 swings and misses.
“He didn’t miss once,” Red Sox starter Rick Porcello said. “That’s above and beyond. In the regular season, you’re thinking about mechanics and your catcher. Postseason it’s all about competing. Your [expletive] that day is your [expletive] that day. It depends on what you bring. And he brought it.”
He wasn’t the only one. Even though Boston won a major league- and franchise-best 108 games this season, and held home-field advantage, it entered the ALCS an underdog to the Astros. They were the defending World Series champions. They swept a dangerous Cleveland Indians team in their Division Series. They went star-for-star with the Red Sox. And, notably, they weren’t committing a pair of starts to someone with Price’s postseason pedigree.
Which again reminds the nonsensical lens through which the postseason is viewed, as if past performance in the smallest of sample sizes could possibly portend future performance. Maybe if someone like Price were intransigent – if he insisted that it was bad luck or a bad pitch or something that did not require reflection. Billy Beane famously said: “My [expletive] doesn’t work in the playoffs.” David Price’s [expletive] hadn’t worked in the playoffs, either, so he changed his [expletive].
The conviction came from a tune-up the day before. Boston had weathered a Game 1 loss at Fenway Park to strike back in Game 2, not securing Price his first postseason victory as a starter but more important salvaging a split. The Red Sox won Game 3, too, and with Game 4’s late-inning lead in the tenuous hands of closer Craig Kimbrel, Price warmed up in the bullpen, testing the changeup that earlier in the day had looked so good after he tweaked its grip, Cora ready to summon him as a secondary stopper. Kimbrel never broke. Price would start Game 5 instead, and with far better feel for his changeup than he’d had recently.
Game 5 provided the perfect setting to hatch Price and LeVangie’s plan. Even though he was pitching on three days’ rest, Price came out throwing with more velocity than Houston expected. His changeup settled around 86.5 mph, and the feckless swings it generated served as a reminder that David Price’s [expletive] could, in fact, work in the playoffs.
“It was filthy,” LeVangie said. “It was absolutely filthy. I saw it in the bullpen. But again, he brought out a pitch that he didn’t show these guys last time, and he absolutely dominated with it.”
It was, as Astros manager A.J. Hinch said, “a championship-caliber performance.” Cora, too, made sure to shout out his starter, saying: “Tomorrow we can turn the page and move on to the World Series with David Price.” Inside both clubhouses, Price was the story, not simply because that first victory as a starter was his but because everyone knows how difficult baseball is, how one or two bad starts in October can conjure demons, how 11 of them will raise the Demogorgon.
It’s not that the Astros or Milwaukee Brewers, who Kershaw limited to one run on three hits with nine strikeouts in a Game 5 win Wednesday, were happy to be on the other side of great starts. They just recognize the difficulty of the game, understand how two pitchers as talented as Price and Kershaw can encounter foibles and acknowledge that every player, even the elite of the elite – especially the elite of the elite – can earn a reputation that does not fit his standing in the game.
At the moment, the Red Sox’s fits. They beat down the 100-win New York Yankees. They dispatched the 103-win Astros. They are 5-0 on the road this postseason. They sent home the Astros with four consecutive victories. Before the regular season, Price said, at a dinner with a few players, Cora asked: “If you want a World Series, raise your hand.” This was no rah-rah, team-building exercise. It was an imperative, an expectation.
And now they’re there, Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday at Fenway against the winner of the Dodgers-Brewers series. They’re going because J.D. Martinez was gifted a no-strike call on what should’ve been a punchout looking and pummeled the next pitch into the Crawford Boxes in left field. And because third baseman Rafael Devers, all of 21 years old, added insurance with a three-run shot into the same vicinity in the sixth. And because after Matt Barnes allowed a solo home run to Marwin González, Cora used his projected Game 7 starter, Nathan Eovaldi, to fire five different top-shelf pitches, including a 102-mph fastball past a swinging Alex Bregman. And because Kimbrel, believing he had corrected pitch-tipping problems, worked a scoreless ninth inning to kick off the celebration.
From it, Price took nothing materially special. He handed the bag of sunflower seeds he was munching on during the ninth inning to equipment manager Pookie Jackson as a memento. What was really special would remain in his head, his heart, his left arm, the three of which collaborated on a gem of a performance.
To summon this again is no guarantee. That is pitching. That is baseball. It’s a trite thing to say, but then so is the sentiment that David Price can’t pitch in October and Clayton Kershaw can’t pitch in October and ______________ can’t ______________ in October. It’s a Mad Lib that belongs in the recycling bin. They can. They did. One of them is going to the World Series. The other may well meet him there.
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