When David Price of the Tampa Bay Rays and Jason Berken of the Baltimore Orioles faced off Tuesday night in St. Petersburg, it was technically a matchup of two Major League rookies. However, while he may still be listed as a rookie on the roster, it is clear that Price has graduated from that distinction.
After key playoff appearances a year ago and now filling a valuable starting role for the Rays, Price seems to be viewed by his manager, the media and himself as just another talented major league pitcher trying to help his team make a playoff run.
Even though Price and Berken have each made 16 major league starts, the two pitchers are light-years apart when it comes to their standing in the Major Leagues.
After allowing seven hits and two runs in five innings against the Orioles, the talk from Price and about Price after the game wasn’t about how he is continuing to adjust to the majors and grow as a pitcher.
Far from it, the Rays are in a playoff fight and the focus of manager Joe Maddon and of Price is all about what the hard throwing lefty can do right now to help his team.
“He had really good stuff, I liked how he was throwing the fastball,” Maddon said after Price’s performance against the Orioles. “They are a really good hitting team and had some good at bats.
“With five innings and 102 pitches, for the most part, except maybe for a big post season situation that guy is out of there. But I liked how he [Price] pitched, 95-96 [mph], I thought he did a good job.”
Price was equally focused on the task at hand.
“We got a win, that was awesome,” Price said after the game. “I went five innings, that’s not what I wanted to do. I thought I had good stuff, I wish I could command the zone a little better.
“I wasn’t missing by much. They got some timely hits, whether those balls were hit hard or not, that’s baseball. I’ve had people hit lasers right at someone, so those things tend to even themselves out.”
Those hardly sound like the words of a pitcher who began the season in the minors and was making only his 16th start in the majors, but Price has been through a lot in a short period of time.
Last season, after only five late-season appearances in the big leagues, Price was thrust into battle against the Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series.
Illustrating the amazing poise showed by the young Tampa Bay squad against the defending World Series Champions, Price pitched in three games in the series and didn’t allow a hit or run.
He earned the victory in Game Two by recording the final two outs of the 11th inning and then watching B.J. Upton drive home the winning run with a sacrifice fly.
After not pitching in the next four games, the 23-year-old Price was given the ball at the most important moment to date in franchise history with the team clinging to a 3-1 lead in the eighth inning of the seventh game of the ALCS.
Displaying the poise of a veteran, Price recorded the final four outs, including three by strikeouts, to earn a save and propel the Rays to their first-ever World Series.
In two appearances in the World Series, Price allowed one earned run and recorded four strikeouts.
Fast-forward ahead to 2009 and while Price started the season in Triple-A to get some additional seasoning as a starting pitcher, he has been solid since returning to the majors on May 25.
The victory over the Orioles lifted his record to 6-5 and his five-inning performance was only the second time in his last seven starts that he didn’t pitch at least six innings.
His poise and focus on helping his team win, rather than on gaining major league experience, is in stark contrast to the situation of Berken and the Orioles.
The start by Berken was the 67th (out of 119 games) this season in which the Orioles have started a rookie pitcher.
“He has little margin for error,” Baltimore manager Dave Trembley said of Berken’s performance, in which he gave up a career-high three home runs.
While Berken, who now has a 2-11 overall record, and the other rookie pitchers for the Orioles have taken their lumps this season on a team that is 26 games out of first place, broadcaster and former major league catcher Buck Martinez thinks there is strength in numbers for the young Baltimore hurlers.
“When they are here together, they are going to make mistakes, but they don’t stand out alone,” Martinez said. “They have each other to commiserate with and help teach each other. By them all being here together, no one will ever feel like they are the rookie that is letting everyone down, they are in it together.
“It is invaluable for them to see the league they are competing in and the division that they are playing in and how competitive it is.”
It has been a different situation for Price ever since the Rays made him the first-overall selection in the 2007 MLB Amateur Draft.
Because of his early success and value to the team this season as they make a push for another playoff spot, Price has been thrust directly in the spotlight. And while Jeff Niemann is also a rookie starter for the Rays, it is Price, as the super talented southpaw, who usually is receiving most of the notoriety.
However, through his actions both on and off the field, Price is demonstrating that he is here to stay and ready to help the Rays make postseason baseball in Tampa Bay a regular October ritual.