ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – As he made the unfamiliar trek from the bullpen to the mound, David Price's mind swirled. He thought about two of his closest friends who died in the past year, one of a heart condition, the other in an auto accident, and how he draws strength from their memories during stressful moments.
Bases loaded. Two out in the eighth inning. His Tampa Bay Rays holding a two-run lead. This qualified as stressful, Price thought, especially considering he'd faced a similar situation only once in his life. Always a starting pitcher, he'd been summoned in relief 16 months ago in an NCAA Regional and gave up a home run that eliminated his Vanderbilt team.
Before stepping on the rubber, he glanced in the stands to his parents, who'd traveled from Murfreesboro, Tenn., in the unlikely event that their son might get into a game. Be careful what you wish for, mom and dad.
"I thought I was going to throw up right there," said Debbie Price, David's mom.
Turns out there was nothing to fear. Turns out baseball has a string of new axioms, principles to live by in times of extreme duress:
Filthy pitches are more potent than experience. A wicked fastball is more important than familiarity. A nasty slider transcends an established role.
Even with a World Series berth on the line.
How else to explain manager Joe Maddon's decision to thrust a rookie who began the year in Single-A and made five big-league appearances
into Game 7 of the American League Championship Series with the outcome on the line?
How else to explain Price striking out J.D. Drew to end the bases-loaded threat, then coming back for the ninth inning and squeezing the life out of the maddeningly resilient Boston Red Sox, sending Tampa into delirium following the 3-1 victory?
"I guess he wanted the lefty-on-lefty matchup with Drew," Price said as teammates sprayed him with champagne. "Then I guess he liked what he saw."
Calling on Price did contain a whiff of guesswork. Had the 23-year-old left-hander
failed, Maddon would've forever been branded as the manager who put the organization's prize prospect in a situation he couldn't handle, scarring Price for life … and, oh, by the way, blowing a chance at the franchise's first World Series.
"Minimal experience, but I was not hesitant," Maddon said.
It was a strange sight. Price was a 110-pitch guy, a No.1 starter at Vanderbilt before becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 draft
and signing with the Rays for $8.5 million minutes before the Aug. 15 deadline. He didn't pitch as a professional until this spring and made 19 starts and no relief appearances at three different minor league levels this year. After being promoted to the Rays on Sept. 14, he pitched once as a starter and four times in relief. Then he made two short situational relief appearances earlier in this series. He was never in a save situation.
Until Sunday night. The Rays' bullpen has been in flux since closer Troy Percival was left off the postseason roster because of injury. Dan Wheeler has been only intermittently effective. Grant Balfour, dominant most of the year, became vulnerable seemingly overnight.
So instead of leaning on experience, falling back on familiarity or sticking to established roles, Maddon went with filthy.
Stayed with nasty.
Finished off Boston with wicked.
"I had no idea I'd be in that situation," Price said. "Nobody gave me a clue."
Maddon's move defied convention, but then this entire Rays season has turned established order on its head. The Red Sox were only the last to succumb. Rays players weren't fazed in the least that Price and his limitless potential had been called upon to produce, and produce now.
An erudite explanation was offered by Columbia-educated Rays outfielder Fernando Perez: "There's this weird, fine line in baseball, above other sports, about having enough experience to get in there and succeed. It's really like a formality. Managers and coaches are usually looking for a reason to defy that postulate. And Joe saw it in the eighth inning and was like, 'We need more of that.' "
Or, as Northeastern-educated first baseman Carlos Pena presented more succinctly: "Price is a stud. You go to your stud, no matter how green he is."
Price appreciated Pena's confidence – and counsel – especially when he walked Jason Bay to open the ninth.
"Carlos came over and said to trust my stuff, that they couldn't touch me," Price said. "He was right on. He always knows how to make me feel comfortable."
Mark Kotsay struck out looking on a 96-mph heater on the outside corner. Jason Varitek struck out flailing at an 87-mph slider. Jed Lowrie hit a bouncer to Akinori Iwamura, who tagged second base and set off the celebration. Price was reflective even while leaping into catcher Dioner Navarro's arms.
"My two best friends are dead, and I try to honor them by giving my all," he said. "I'm trying to appreciate life and everything that's come my way."
Next spring Price is expected to step into the starting rotation and remain there for, oh, 15 years or so. But there's a World Series to be played first. And he could be invaluable in relief, primarily to match up against the Philadelphia Phillies' back-to-back left-handed sluggers, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard.
Then again, Price could be the new closer. The Rays trust Maddon to sort it out.
"The kid throws 97," Wheeler said. "Oh, hell, who am I kidding. Joe's a genius."