BOSTON -- Stepping on the hill for the 300th start of his Major League career and facing the team that drafted him 12 years ago, David Price did what he has done on countless occasions throughout his impressive career.
He came up big when his team needed him to.
The Red Sox couldn’t afford to lose the third straight game of a four-game series against the Rays, and Price didn’t allow them to.
Instead, he pitched them to a 5-1 victory at Fenway Park that salvaged the split of a day-night doubleheader after a 9-2 loss in the opener. Thanks to Price (6 innings, 5 hits, 1 ER, 2 BB, 10 K), Boston is still in position to split the series with a win on Sunday.
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And thanks to Price, the Red Sox, despite a 34-31 record, are still in contention in the American League East, trailing the Rays and Yankees by six games.
“Yeah, they won the game yesterday,” Price said. “They won the first game of the doubleheader. That was a big game for us to keep moving forward. We don’t want to lose three games in a row, especially to a team that’s in front of us in the standings. So that’s big.”
The start was similar to Price’s previous one last Sunday at Yankee Stadium, when the Sox needed a win to avoid being swept by their rivals. Price pitched 6 1/3 strong innings in the 8-5 victory.
“He’s been the stopper the whole season,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said.
Though Chris Sale has turned in Boston’s most dominating starts this season, Price (4-2, 2.70 ERA) has been the team’s best starting pitcher.
“Outstanding again,” Cora said. “He’s in a good place. I’ve been saying all along, he’s healthy. Command is great, mix of pitches. The separation of them, too. He’s been great for us. What he did in New York, what he did today, and the Cleveland start [on May 28], he’s been very solid. I’m glad he’s throwing the ball the way he is and you can count on him every five days.”
While Price is no longer the flame-thrower the Rays took out of Vanderbilt, he remains a success story due to his ability to locate his fastball and keep hitters off-balance with his cutter and changeup.
Of his 103 pitches against the Rays, Price threw 60 fastballs, 25 changeups, 13 cutters, three sliders and two curveballs. He generated nine of his 16 swings and misses on the changeup, a pitch that became the difference-maker in his memorable postseason run last October.
Price has become the ultimate game-plan pitcher at the age of 33.
“There’s a lot of work that we see and some of the work we don’t see. He knows what he’s doing,” Cora said. “In games he’s not pitching, he’s paying attention and he’s helping everybody. At the same time, he’s steadying. He doesn’t miss a beat. He’s right on top of it.
“If there’s a pitch we don’t agree with, he’ll look at scouting reports and all the information that we have. Hitters, and tendencies against them, he’s all in. He’s not only a starting pitcher, he’s a great teammate. I got to know this guy last year, and obviously what he did for us in the postseason, the trust factor, when he tells me he’s ready, he’s ready. I trust him. I’m very happy for him that he performed this way tonight.”
In the top of the sixth, when the Rays finally pressed Price by loading the bases with two outs, the veteran did what he had to do -- popping up Kevin Kiermaier on the seventh pitch of the at-bat on an inside fastball on the upper, inner edge of the zone.
That’s how a stopper gets out of a jam, right?
“I don’t look at it that way,” Price said of the stopper label. “I expect us to win every time I touch the baseball. If we’ve lost a couple games before I pitched, I want to turn it around.”
Price is the sixth active pitcher to make 300-plus starts in the more offensive-minded American League. All but 32 of those starts have been pitching for AL East teams.
“I was drafted 12 years ago yesterday by a team I threw my 300th start against,” Price said. “That comes full circle in that sense. But I want to take the ball every fifth day, I want to stay healthy, I want to give us a chance to win baseball games. And that’s what I’ve been doing.”
A forgotten man gets the big hit
Just after Price got out of that jam in the sixth, Marco Hernandez came up in a big spot in the bottom of the inning. The bases were loaded with one out, and the Red Sox were clinging to a 3-1 lead.
Hernandez lofted a two-run, Fenway double that landed, coincidentally enough, off the Tampa Bay placard in the AL East standings. The timely hit ended a rough spell in which Boston had two hits in its previous 20 at-bats with the bases loaded. According to Statcast, the double had an expected batting average of .010. But that’s life at Fenway, where an innocent fly ball can scrape some Green Monster.
It was a feel-good story for the hit to come from Hernandez, who was recalled from Triple-A Pawtucket prior to the doubleheader, marking his first day back with the Red Sox since he separated his left shoulder on May 3, 2017.
“He put the ball in play there and went the other way,” Cora said. “He wasn’t thinking big. Just put the ball in play the other way and good things are going to happen, and he gets the double. He brought energy to the team, a smile to everybody. That’s cool to see. He played well. I’m very proud of him.”
In his first day back, Hernandez made good on a recent promise to Price.
“It’s awesome,” Price said. “He told me probably right before he started going on his [Minor League] rehab, a month-and-a-half, almost two months ago, that he was going to be a spark plug for us. That was good to hear him say that. For everything that he’s been through, to be able to bounce back and contribute the way he has, that’s awesome and I’m happy for him.”
Ian Browne has covered the Red Sox for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne and Facebook.