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Monday, October 20, 2008

Price Non-Negotiable

Posted by on Mon, Oct 20, 2008 at 1:44 AM

Last night's deciding Game Seven of the ALCS Championship Series had the crisp, taut feel of classic October baseball. Both teams' starters pitched well, especially the Rays' Matt Garza. (Garza was acquired in the trade that sent former Bulls' malcontent Delmon Young to Minnesota.) In the eighth inning, Tampa manager Joe Maddon started playing the bullpen-matchup game, and I was telling a friend of mine that one of the few holes in the Rays' roster was at the spot where an intimidating late-inning reliever should be -- someone who could come in and throw flaming daggers. Since veteran closer Troy Percival went down with a season-ending inury, the Tampa relief corps has comprised crafty soft-tossers, reliable LOOGys, and other late-model hatchbacks. In the post-season, though, you need a dominant, bat-missing power pitcher. A Mustang. A Ferrari.

The thought flitted across my mind that Tampa did indeed have such a pitcher: David Price.

We've blogged about Price ever since he was promoted to Durham in August. The number one pick in the 2007 draft, Price rocketed up through the Rays' farm system this year. He made a pit-stop in Durham before making his major league debut in September at Yankee Stadium. He saw only fourteen innings of action in the show, however; and although he made the Rays' postseason roster, his inexperience put him low on the bullpen depth chart. He would probably be used only in emergencies.

Joe Maddon might suddenly have emerged as the coolest manager in baseball -- in both senses of the word. His boxy glasses are both bookish and beatnik, and his demeanor is deliberately, well, cool. He has said that he imagines himself behind a pane of glass during games. In the seventh inning, with Tampa up 2-1, Garza pitched himself into trouble and Maddon jogged out to the mound to talk to him. The Rays had two relievers ready in the bullpen. Before Maddon had even reached a stop at the mound, you could read his lips saying, "How you doing?" Garza's response must have been something like "OK," because the next lip-read came about a half-second later, and it went, "I think you're doing awesome." He abruptly turned and went back to the dugout, leaving Garza in the game.

Few managers would do that. Garza is young, and he had already thrown 116 pitches. But most managers would rather be criticized for a change they made not working out than for making no change at all. In other words, they'd rather appear to be managing.

Garza struck out Jason Varitek and the top of the seventh inning was over.

The benefit of coolness at the Maddon Level is that it allows thinking that is both clear and risk-taking, and if there is one manager who would not only stay with a tiring young pitcher in the seventh inning of Game Seven of the ALCS, but also, in the eighth inning of the same game, call on a barely-tested rookie who can throw a 98-mph fastball and an 86-mph slider, it's Joe Maddon. The decision was strategically the correct one, regardless of Price's inexperience. Four pitchers had already been used in the inning, and so there weren't many interesting options left. (Grant Balfour had been shelled in Game Five in Boston.) The next batter was a lefthander, J. D. Drew, whose bat speed has diminished a little in the last couple of years. Price throws lefthanded.

Oh, and the bases were loaded.

So it was an emergency.

Who knows what was going through Price's head when he came in to face Drew? The look on his face was so intense that it obscured the character of his intensity -- it just looked like protean, roiling energy. Was he scared? Het up for battle? Was he thinking about the magnitude of the situation? The Rays were the worst team in baseball last year and have been awful since their inception. Here they were, teetering on the edge of the World Series, and here he was, a year out of Vanderbilt, entrusted to get them there.

If you saw the game, you know what happened. Price struck out Drew looking at a nasty heater that clipped the top of the outside corner (it might in fact have missed by a little). He screamed into his glove as he stalked off the mound. He came back out for the ninth, and although his fastball kept riding high -- so he was nervous, after all -- there seemed little doubt that the game was over. And it was.

Who knows how the Rays will fare in the World Series? They're young and their opponent, Philadelphia, is an enigmatic team that can look on any given night unbeatable or awful. Whatever happens, here's a prediction I'd put money on: You'll be seeing a lot of David Price.

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