BALTIMORE — Some seven months later, David Price can still remember how good he felt when he showed up at Boston’s spring training camp in Fort Myers, Fla., his prized left arm in pristine condition, his second season on a seven-year, $217 million deal with the Red Sox containing all the makings of something special.
But the good vibes lasted all of two weeks. The first twinge of elbow soreness in late February, in hindsight, was the portentous start of a hellish journey that saw insult added to injury, with Price making just 11 starts, clashing with the Boston media and becoming a favorite punching bag for Red Sox fans during a season full of inconsistency and intrigue.
“Going into spring training feeling as good as I did, and then for everything to happen the way it’s happened, has definitely been tough,” Price, 32, said Monday in the visitors’ clubhouse at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, where the Red Sox, now holding a three-game lead over the New York Yankees in the American League East, opened a three-game series against the Orioles with a 10-8 win.
“I’ve dealt with it. I’ve gotten through it,” he said. “Most people would’ve been at the house months ago. I didn’t pack it in. Does it feel good? No. [But] I still pitched. If people don’t appreciate that, or can’t, so be it.”
As the regular season winds down, with the Red Sox mere days away from clinching a playoff spot, Price is in a position he never would have imagined back in February — relegated to the bullpen for the rest of 2017, however far the Red Sox go. The move, which the team made last week, was an acknowledgment that Price’s latest elbow-related layoff, which began July 22, did not afford enough time to build up his stamina in time to start in October.
When management sat him down and told Price of their plans for him, he immediately made it known that he strongly disagreed.
“They knew what I wanted to do. I definitely wanted to start,” he said. The team’s logic, however, was difficult to deny. “It would have been tough to build me back up at that point. I get it.”
Price’s first regular-season relief outing in seven years, a dominant two-inning stint Sunday at Tampa Bay, was enough to make the Red Sox believe they might have just stumbled upon the sort of multi-inning bullpen ace who has proven to be a difference-maker in recent Octobers, and for Price to believe he can redeem his rocky 2017 with one brilliant month on baseball’s biggest stage.
“I’ll be able to help — maybe not as much as I would as a starter, I feel like, but that time of season, I know how big that is, to have a guy who can [pitch in that role],” Price said. “If we make it to October and I throw the ball extremely well coming out of the ‘pen, it doesn’t matter that I wasn’t a starter. I just want to help these guys win.”
The Red Sox, in the two weeks or so that are left in the regular season, are still trying to ease Price into the new role. He won’t be pitching on back-to-back days initially, and the team will keep close watch on his pitch-counts. But on Monday, just 24 hours after throwing 21 pitches at Tampa Bay and touching 95 mph with his fastball, he said his arm felt great.
“I’ve always been a guy who hasn’t had [next-day] soreness,” he said. “I’ve never had problems with my arm. When I pitch, the next day, I feel like I can pitch that day. I’ve always told my managers that. When I see them the next day, I’m like, ‘I’m good.’ This is still a trial-and-error process, too. We don’t know how it’s going to respond, but when I woke up this morning I felt good.”
Boston General Manager Dave Dombrowski, who signed Price to the record-setting contract in December 2015, acknowledged the obvious on Monday: The Red Sox hope Price can turn into their Andrew Miller this October. A year ago, the Cleveland Indians deployed Miller, their veteran lefty reliever, as a multi-inning, high-leverage fireman who appeared anywhere from the fifth through ninth innings and threw upward of 40 pitches in some of his appearances — turning him into arguably the biggest weapon in the entire postseason, as the Indians advanced to the World Series.
“The ideal scenario [for Price] would be something like you’ve seen Andrew Miller do,” Dombrowski said. “When we talked to David about it, he said his arm is very resilient when it comes to these scenarios. Of course we have to make sure we’re concerned about his health, too. He’s completely healthy. But when you get a guy back like this, you still want to be cognizant of this situation.”
In the Red Sox clubhouse on Monday, Price joked that by the end of the regular season he would be promoted to closer — within earshot of Craig Kimbrel, a six-time all-star who is the top closer in the AL. Kimbrel laughed and rolled his eyes. In reality, Price could give the Red Sox the lights-out, middle-relief option they have lacked for most of the season.
Price, of course, broke into the majors as a 23-year-old bullpen ace for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008, just a year after being drafted out of Vanderbilt with the first overall pick of the 2007 draft. In the 2008 AL Championship Series, he shut down the Red Sox over three overpowering relief appearances, earning the save in the Game 7 clincher and helping the Rays to their first World Series appearance.
The circumstances are far different now. This time, Price’s shift to the bullpen is not a concession to his youth, but to his health. And this time, he needs to experience success not to kick-start a promising career, but to salvage a disappointing season and to redeem a spotty postseason record that includes a career mark of 0-8 and an ERA of 5.74 in nine career starts — including an ugly loss at Cleveland in last year’s AL Division Series.
Dombrowski, though, recalls the 7 1/3 shutout innings Price delivered to clinch the 2014 AL Central division for the 2014 Detroit Tigers, when both were with that organization, and the hard-luck 2-1 loss to Baltimore in the Division Series a week later, when Price went eight dominant innings and allowed only a two-run homer to Nelson Cruz.
As someone who is fond of Price as both a pitcher and a human being — and as the man whose reputation is on the line for having signed him to the richest contract for a pitcher in history — Dombrowski hopes the team’s great bullpen experiment of 2017 produces the best possible result.
“David, the way he carries himself, and with his intelligence, he’ll do well in life even if he doesn’t [succeed], but of course you’d like to see him do well,” Dombrowski said. “He works hard. He’s a quality pitcher. I’ve seen him do it, and so there’s no question he’s very capable of doing it. But for his own sake and his own benefit, I’d love to see him do it.”