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Sunday, April 12, 2009

David Price's First Start of 2009: Durham Bulls' Finishing School, Lesson One

Posted by on Sun, Apr 12, 2009 at 1:48 AM

DBAP/DURHAM—Informed that David Price tossed 50 of 74 pitches for strikes tonight, threw first-pitch strikes to 13 of the 17 hitters he faced, and struck out four Norfolk Tides in 3 2/3 innings of the Bulls' 8-4 win, one would assume that Price's first start of 2009 was successful.

By those measures, it was a fine performance. But this was, oddly, a tale of two outings for Price. He breezed through the first inning with two harmless groundouts to third and a three-pitch strikeout (looking) of Matt Wieters, the No. 1 prospect in all of baseball. Price's night ended after he retired four straight Tides on a pair of strikeouts and two easy outfield flyouts.

It's what happened in between that might raise eyebrows.

In the second inning, Price was roughed up for a pair of singles and a long home run by Nolan Reimold. He followed these up with a four-pitch walk to Donnie Murphy, and then he was a tad late covering first base on what could have been an inning-ending double play, dropping, in his haste to reach the bag, the low throw from shortstop Reid Brignac (this was a rare instance in which Price's 6'-6" frame was a liability.) In the third inning, Price lost a 12-pitch battle of an at-bat to Wieters, who coaxed a walk out of the young ace by fouling off pitch after two-strike pitch; then Price gave up a single to Oscar Salazar (Salazar's second hit off Price in as many innings) before retiring the final four batters he faced.

What to make of this? The DBAP radar gun is erratic—you see the speed of only about half the pitches—but Price seemed to be in the low 90s for most of the night rather than the 96mph+ range he's capable of; and by my count, his 74 pitches produced just five or six swings-and-misses. For a power pitcher, that last statistic is uncomfortable, especially coupled with his reduced velocity. It may be that Price wasn't bringing full heat by design, but Wieters's 12-pitch walk seemed emblematic of the night in some ways: Price couldn't finish Wieters off, and lots of pitches to other batters were hit foul rather than swung on and missed; and Price's rising pitch count used him up before the end of the fourth inning. He threw 27 pitches in the second inning, and 28 more to get through the scoreless third. The Tides mostly didn't offer at his changeup, which he used judiciously.

But let's not panic. It was a cool, damp but breezy night at the DBAP, and Price calmly pitched out of trouble when he had to, limiting the damage to Salazar's two-run homer and getting four consecutive easy outs before his departure. Had he been allowed to max out at 100 pitches, he might well have picked up a five-inning win. Price's "peripherals," as they say, were generally strong, even if his velocity wasn't. It's early in the year, of course, and it was for exactly this sort of character- and endurance-building experience that the Rays have sent Price to Durham this spring. What we're seeing is a work-in-progress, and we oughtn't forget that extraordinary progress has already been made. This is finishing school for a young virtuoso-in-training. He'll miss a few notes along the way.

It was autograph night at the DBAP and I had to leave before the players retired to the clubhouse—there was a long line for signatures—so I wasn't able to interview anyone. The well-traveled veteran catcher Michel Hernandez caught Price tonight rather than the younger, higher-ceilinged prospect John Jaso, and I would have liked to ask whether we can expect Hernandez to serve as Price's personal battery-mate while he's in Durham. I'd wager yes. Jaso, for his part, was the designated hitter and reached base in four of five plate appearances, with a double, a single and a pair of walks.

Much more to say about last night's ballgame, including phone calls to the press box from the Major League Baseball offices in New York and the great ESPN baseball analyst Buster Olney, all looking for a piece of Price. I'll be back tomorrow morning with more. I've got an Easter obligation that will keep me away from the DBAP tomorrow evening, so unfortunately I'll be forced to miss Wade Davis's first start of the year. May Davis toss unhittable hardboiled eggs at the Tides. See you all at the DBAP on Monday night.

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