ST. PETERSBURG -- Jim Hickey celebrated his 10th anniversary Sunday as a big league pitching coach, and to honor the occasion, David Price told his boss he would pitch a complete-game shutout.
“Price wants to pitch a shutout every time out, whether it’s for me or for his mom or (his dog) Astro, or whatever it is,” Hickey said, “but it certainly was a nice occasion.”
Nice because the Rays won again, beating the Blue Jays 3-0 at Tropicana Field on a combined five-hitter from Price and Jake McGee.
Nice, because the team that struggled through much of the first half reached the All-Star Break with 12 wins in their last 17 games -- all against teams with winning records.
Nice, because Price received another loud ovation as he walked off the field one batter into the ninth inning. So if one of the many trade rumors comes to fruition and Sunday was indeed his last start at the Trop as a Ray, the 17,187 in the building saw Price at his best.
“Maybe not his best fastball, but maybe the best game he pitched,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “He was out there as a craftsman. It was really fun to watch.”
Price, who heads to Tuesday’s All-Star Game in Minneapolis but will not pitch because of Sunday’s start, has won four straight starts for the third time in his career. His eight shutout innings Sunday lowered his ERA during his last nine starts to 1.92. His 164 strikeouts are the highest in the majors at the All-Star Break since 2002.
“He’s been exceptional,” right fielder Ben Zobrist said. “He’s been the best pitcher we’ve ever seen in Tampa Bay his last however many starts. That’s the best we’ve ever seen him. You can’t really get a guy pitching any better all around the league right now, maybe with the exception of Clayton Kershaw (of the Dodgers). David has been just as good as anybody else, maybe even better.”
Price was originally scheduled to pitch Saturday but had that start pushed back one day because he was ill. He said he knew he would be able to make Sunday’s start after watching the Rays score six times in the sixth inning Saturday.
“That really pumped me up,” Price said. “I was mad I wasn’t pitching (Saturday) with all those runs.”
Price made the three runs the Rays scored Sunday stand by replacing his cutter with his changeup.
“It was probably the best I’ve ever seen him throw that,” Hickey said.
Price said it was his best changeup since April 11, when he went 8 1/3 innings in a 2-1 victory at Cincinnati.
“It was good to get that pitch back,” Price said. “It makes things a lot easier for me.”
Shortstop Yunel Escobar scored the first two runs of the game against Jays knuckleballer R.A. Dickey. With Price on the mound, Dickey knew those runs would be the difference.
“You know when you’re pitching against a guy like that you don’t have a lot of margin for error, anyway,” Dickey said.
The Rays are off until Friday, when they open the second half with a three-game series against the Twins at Target Field. Sunday’s win placed them in a better frame of mind of the during four-game All-Star Break.
They have won four of their last five series, moved back to being just nine games under .500 and continue to believe in their chances of making a second-half run at the AL East title.
“We take it one game at a time, that’s the way it’s been,” Price said. “That’s what Joe always harps on all the time, one game at a time. We don’t say we need to win every series from here on out, focus in on the task at hand and that’s the game that day. We’ve been playing a lot better, hopefully the All-Star Break doesn’t put us into a lull.”