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Follow the leader: Price's value soaring for Rays

With season on the line, left-hander completely elevates his stature @RichardJustice

ARLINGTON -- Somewhere around the middle innings, there was no question where this one was headed. David Price wasn't going to let the Tampa Bay Rays lose. It just wasn't going to happen.

"He wanted it as much as he wanted oxygen," Rays manager Joe Maddon said later. "He wanted to be the guy. He has trained to be that person since he was a kid."

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Maybe we'll look back on Monday night years from now and see it as another of the defining moments of Price's remarkable career. With his team's season on the line, Price put the Rays on his back and threw a 118-pitch complete game to beat the Rangers, 5-2, in a tiebreaker to decide the American League's second Wild Card berth.

"That's what the leader of a staff does," Rays third baseman Evan Longoria said. "He's a competitor to the core. That's the way you lead. I think that energizes everybody."

Price showed off pretty much his entire catalog, mixing a 96-mph fastball here with a nasty changeup there. Late in the game, he fed the Rangers a diet of cutters and curveballs, and even though the Rangers left runners in scoring position three times, Maddon never came close to taking him out.

"As the game got deeper, he continued to get better," Maddon said. "That's the sign of a champion. There was no way I wanted to take him out. He was fantastic."

Price is 0-3 against the Rangers in the postseason and won for just the second time in 12 career starts against them. Those are just numbers. The Rangers have changed some, and Price certainly has.

So the Rays are back in the playoffs for the fourth time in six seasons as they head to Cleveland to play the American League Wild Card Game on Wednesday night (at 8:07 ET on TBS).

"He got into that zone, and there was nothing that was going to stop him," Rays second baseman Ben Zobrist said.

Price began the day by spending a couple of hours envisioning how he hoped this 163rd game of the regular season would play out. He saw himself getting the final out of the game and then turning to embrace Longoria, his friend and teammate from the beginning of his career. Before the game, he thought about telling Longoria what he was thinking -- but didn't want to risk jinxing it.

When the game ended just as he'd seen it ending, he turned toward Longoria.

"That's what I'm talking about," Price said.

Longoria responded in kind.

"That's what I'm talking about too," he yelled back.

Afterward, a few feet from a wild clubhouse celebration, Longoria said he actually had no idea what Price was talking about.

"It's emotional," Longoria said. "When you play with a guy for that long and you develop the bonds that you do, when you accomplish stuff as a team, it's special."

On the other hand ...

"He pretty much did it himself today," Longoria said.

Yeah, unless Longoria's three hits, including a two-run home run in the third inning, don't count.

Price has grown in stature every year of his career, grown not just in the hearts and minds of baseball fans everywhere, but also in how his teammates lean on him and trust him and follow him.

He's not that kid fresh out of Vanderbilt anymore. He's one of the leaders of a team that defines smarts and excellence and a lot of other good stuff.

"It's a dream playing here," Price said. "It really is. This is hands down the closest it comes to college. Camaraderie. People caring for each other. People hanging out. It feels like an extension of my family, and that's special."

This season hasn't been a smooth ride for the Rays. Their top three starters -- Price, Matt Moore and Alex Cobb -- spent time on the disabled list. There were a few stretches when the Rays did a good imitation of the best team in baseball, but there were other times when they didn't look like they were good enough to make the playoffs.

They had to win eight of their final 10 regular-season games, including Sunday's game in Toronto, just to force an extra game. Now, though, they're still alive.

"These are the moments I thought about as a kid," Price said. "It feels unbelievable. Just running out there for the ninth inning. It's what I've wanted to do my entire life. I want to do that again -- Game 7 of the World Series or Game 4 or something like that. I appreciated Joe letting me go back out there. I feel like he thought I was in control of that game. That was fun."

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.

Tampa Bay Rays, David Price