The first hint that David Price might be in for a bit of a struggle on Tuesday came in the first inning when Orioles catcher Matt Wieters followed up an Adam Jones double to center with a home run to left.
Jones and Wieters had combined to hit just .214 (12-for-56) against the American League’s reigning Cy Young Award winner to that point, but those two hits told Rays manager Joe Maddon something was up.
“My antenna went up right away when Jones and Wieters hit Price that inning, because David usually handles them pretty well,’’ Maddon said. “His fastball just wasn’t as spiffy as it normally is, and I think that might have been the difference in the game.’’
Others might disagree. After all, the Rays eventually were done in by a five-run seventh that made Jake McGee the loser in a 7-4 setback.
Still, there was no denying Price was not at his best in the season opener.
Though he never surrendered another run, Price left after six innings and 100 pitches having allowed seven hits and a walk while striking out four on a day when he retired the side in order only once.
That was in the fifth, and he needed a couple of web gems from third baseman Evan Longoria, who dove to the ground and threw Jones out while seated on the back of his pants, to achieve that.
“I don’t think I ever really settled into that game at all,’’ said Price, who was making the second Opening Day start of his career. “I put us in a hole right away, and that’s not something I want to do.’’
What put Price and the Rays in a hole was a hanging change-up to Wieters. What perpetuated the situation was some substandard velocity on Price’s fastball, which at 95.5 mph was the fastest on average in the big leagues last year.
“Jones hit a fastball to right center (in the first) and Wieters hit a fastball (for a sixth-inning double),’’ Maddon said. “He just didn’t have his typical sharpness with that pitch.’’
A loss of velocity on a fastball can be a sign of trouble for a pitcher of Price’s makeup, but Price didn’t walk away from the start worried about what he was registering on the radar gun.
“Last year my lowest velocity month was April,’’ he said. “That’s part of it. It’s a growing process. You don’t just come out here and turn yourself into Cy Young in the first outing. I’m really fine with the way I threw the ball today.’’
So was Maddon, who was particularly impressed with Price’s ability to limit the damage and to tough it out for six innings and 100 pitches on a day when he clearly wasn’t at his best.
“I don’t know if he might have been overly emotional about the game before it began or what, but he just wasn’t on top of his normal stuff,’’ Maddon said. “However, he leaves with a 3-2 lead.
“So I have to give him a lot of credit for that. To be able to pitch like that against that team — and they were swinging the bats well today — and give us 100 pitches, that is the sign of an excellent pitcher.’’