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Price's dominant return changes complexity of AL East

If contenders come from pitching and defense, Rays have winning recipe

HOUSTON -- First, a few words from your 2012 American League Cy Young Award winner.

"That's probably the best I've felt on a baseball field maybe my entire life," David Price said Tuesday night.


He spoke those words moments after ending a 44-day stay on the disabled list with seven scoreless innings against the Astros. There was joy in his voice, but there was relief, too. To think he could improve on a 2012 season that included 20 victories and a 2.56 ERA will take some time to wrap the mind around.

Price was insistent.

"I feel like that's the most control I've had of a baseball game in a very long time," he said. "It was better than I threw the ball at any point last year."

His fastball was consistently clocked in the 95- to 96-mph range. His control was precise. His off-speed stuff was crisp as well. The night began with Rays manager Joe Maddon hoping to get five or six innings from his ace. He planned to pull the plug after 90 pitches.

"He's never been hurt, so you don't know what to expect," Maddon said.

Instead, he got Price at his all-world best. Price needed just 70 pitches to sail through those seven innings of a game the Rays would win, 8-0, against the Astros.

He allowed three singles and walked none. None of those three baserunners got into scoring position. He got outs on his full catalogue, striking out Chris Carter on a nasty curve in the first and Carlos Corporan on a 95-mph heater in the second. In a nutshell, that was his day.

And the American League East race looks a little bit different. This season began badly for Price. In his first nine starts, he barely resembled the David Price of 2012.

His velocity was down; his command off. He won one of those nine starts and had a 5.24 ERA when he was placed on the disabled list with a triceps strain after a May 15 start against the Red Sox.

"The way the first nine starts went, it makes it kind of tough to sleep at night," Price said. "That's not me. I felt like I got back to myself tonight."

Looking back on it, he calls the DL stint "kind of a blessing in disguise."

"Just letting me regroup with everything," he said. "I put more pressure on myself than anybody could ever put on me."

And now...

The Rays are close to being whole again. Evan Longoria was back in the lineup Tuesday as the designated hitter despite suffering from plantar fasciitis. If right-hander Alex Cobb (concussion) can return in the next few weeks, the Rays will be the team they expected to be.

That is, they will have what could be baseball's best rotation, one that begins with arguably the American League's best pitcher. They will have an offense that has increased its production from 4.3 to 4.7 runs per game since last season.

They will also have one of baseball's best defensive teams after their brilliant general manager, Andrew Friedman, worked his usual magic with the additions of first baseman James Loney and shortstop Yunel Escobar.

And they will have perhaps baseball's best manager. Joe Maddon's players showed up for work earlier this season to find a Merengue band playing in the clubhouse. Another day, he was joined in his office by a penguin. Did we mention the cockatoo that camped on his shoulder during pregame interviews?

"Hey, you've got to enjoy this thing," Maddon said.

He asks only that they play hard, pay attention to detail and enjoy the ride. If Tuesday night is an indication of how Price will pitch in the second half of the season, the Rays could have plenty of fun.

Having Price and Longoria back in the lineup is a boost in ways that cannot always be measured but can be felt and understood by the players.

"They're a huge part of this clubhouse," second baseman Ben Zobrist said. "Feeling like you're at full strength gives everybody a lot of confidence."

So why not Tampa Bay? If it's pitching and defense that decide a close race -- and that's a good bet -- the Rays will take a backseat to no one.

"The sky's the limit for this team," Price said. "We have a great group of guys, as we do every year. The camaraderie in the clubhouse and the dugout is second to none. It's big for the team. It's huge for me, my confidence. Hopefully we can keep it going."

The Rays have been so good for so long that doing more with less has become the norm. In the last five years, they have averaged 92 victories with an average payroll rank of 25th. This season, they have baseball's third-lowest payroll.

"Our expectations are to go back to the playoffs and World Series," Maddon said. "We can't go there without these two guys [Price and Longoria]. I know other teams view us differently when we have them. Next step is [Cobb]. He was pitching as well as anyone around. When he gets back, we'll truly be whole."

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.
Read More: Tampa Bay Rays, David Price, Alex Cobb