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Price dominant as Rays pull closer to AL East lead

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Published:   |   Updated: July 25, 2013 at 09:42 AM

BOSTON - Is it possible the current David Price is better than the old David Price?

You remember him. The guy who won 20 games last season and received the American League Cy Young Award?

"Yeah," Rays manager Joe Maddon said.

"Absolutely," Price said.

Who can argue?

Price continued his post-disabled list dominance Wednesday with another complete game - his third in his last four starts - to lead the Rays to a 5-1 victory against the first-place Red Sox 5-1 at Fenway Park.

The win moved the Rays to within half-game of the division lead. They can take over first place tonight with a victory in the finale of this four-game series.

Wednesday's win was the seventh in the Rays' last eight games and 15th in their last 17.

Like nearly all the wins during this hot streak, it came about by terrific starting pitching, enough offense and outstanding defense.

Shortstop Yunel Escobar and second baseman Ben Zobrist turned in the play of the year when they combined on a fourth inning double play that should be a staple in highlight clips for the remainder of the year.

"That's the best play I ever had made behind me," Price said.

More on that in a moment.

But first . David Price.

He allowed five hits, including a seventh-inning home run by Mike Napoli that spoiled his shutout. He didn't walk a batter for the fourth time since returning from the disabled list.

"He never gave us a chance to build any kind of inning. Tip your hat. He pitched one heck of a game against us," Red Sox manager John Farrell said.

What's more, Price needed only 97 pitches, too, which is nearly unheard for a starter against a Red Sox lineup.

The last visiting pitcher to throw a complete game against the Red Sox at Fenway Park in less than 100 pitches was Chien-Ming Wang of the Yankees, who needed 93 on April 11, 2008.

"You can see they wanted to take more pitches but they couldn't because he kept throwing strikes," Maddon said. "It's a combination of strike-throwing with that stuff, not (throwing) in the middle of the plate, working the edges well. He had everything going on."

According to Baseball Reference, Price is the only pitcher since 1999 when pitch count data is complete, to throw three complete games needing less than 100 pitches in each over a span of four starts.

Price said the difference between what he did before he strained his left triceps and what he is doing now is simple:

"Beginning of the year I wasn't executing pitches. That's all that was," he said.

As for being better than last season, Price believes he is because he can command all four of his pitches. Last year he could rely on his fastball and cutter. This year he can rely on his changeup and his curveball.

"Right now I honestly feel in have four pitches I can throw at any time," he said.

Maddon said he thought Price would make improvements over last season. But given how he pitched early in the season and the injury, Maddon said he is surprised Price is pitching this well.

"It's just hard to imagine a guy pitching better than he is right now," Maddon said. "I don't think I've seen it regarding quality of pitches, quality of stuff, location, good hitting ball club. He's really on top of his game. That's an understatement."

The surprising part was Price reached this level after missing 47 days with the injury. He was 1-4 with a 5.24 ERA in nine starts before he went on the disabled list. He is 4-1 with three complete games and a 1.76 ERA in five starts since he rejoined the rotation July 2.

"I would anticipate this much progression based on what he had done last year," Maddon said. "There was another level to take, and he's taken it to that level right now."

Maddon said being on the disabled list allowed Price the opportunity to reflect on what he wasn't doing during his first nine starts.

"I think he took that moment properly and he's taken it and channeled it in the right way, and right now he's taken the combination of what he's done last year and also this injury this year, take a step back, 'What's going on here?' and he's really arriving at that level of an elite pitcher right now," Maddon said.

Price threw the fifth complete game of the Rays this season. All five have come in the past 14 games. It was the second this series. Matt Moore threw a complete-game shutout Monday.

Now, for that defensive gem by Escobar.

It happened in the fourth inning with Shane Victorino on first base after a leadoff infield single to short. Dustin Pedroia hit a pitch back up the middle that Escobar caught with his glove as he raced behind second base. Using his glove Escobar flipped the ball behind his back to Zobrist, who caught it with his bare hand as he stepped on the bag. Zobrist then spun and threw to first to complete the double play.

The Rays gave Price all the runs he needed in the third inning when they scored three times off Red Sox starter Felix Dubront.

Desmond Jennings reached on a one-out single and move to second when Dubront's pickoff throw got past Napoli.

Evan Longoria followed with a single to put runners on the corners for Ben Zobrist, who bunted. Zobrist pushed the ball toward the first base side of the mound, but since it hung up in the air so long, Jennings had to hold at third.

Wil Myers, hitting cleanup because Maddon moved Longoria up to second in the order, singled to center field to score Jennings and Longoria.

A double steal by Zobrist and Myers put both runners in scoring position and enabled the Rays to take a 3-0 lead when Luke Scott flied out to former Ray Jonny Gomes in left field.

They added two more runs in the eighth on RBI singles by James Loney and Jose Molina.

For the second time during this series the Rays can overtake the Red Sox for first place. All it takes is a victory tonight.

"It's always nice to be in first place," Maddon said. "I'm more apt to read the papers and watch TV at night."

rmooney@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7227

Twitter: @RMooneyTBO

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