By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Nobody knew what to expect out of David Price for Game 5 of the ALCS. How could they?
For the better part of the last decade, Price has been somewhere between mediocre and dreadful when pitching as a starter in the postseason. And though he made what he described as “baby steps” with a mediocre outing against the Astros in Game 2, the challenge figured to be much tougher in Game 5, with Houston at home, facing elimination.
So of course, with baseball being baseball, Price took the mound Thursday night, on short rest, and pitched the game of his playoff life.
And now, after a 4-1 victory, Price and the Red Sox are moving on to the World Series.
This was one that Price wanted to soak in.
“It’s special,” Price said “I remember first time I ever went [to the World Series, in 2008], I’m out there shagging in left field before Game 1, and Jamie Moyer pulls me aside. I think he had 17 or 18 years in the big leagues, and that was the first time he ever got to that point. So he told me to make sure that I enjoyed it and to really appreciate how special it was to get to that point in the time. And I did. I got called up, I think, September 17, and had two weeks in the big leagues before the playoffs. I hadn’t gone through the grind yet, I hadn’t experienced the failures at the big league level like I have now. So to get back to that point is very special.”
Despite the short rest, and despite the extended warm-up session in the bullpen a night earlier, Price was able to gas up his fastball, which was a benefit in and of itself, and also helped the effectiveness of his changeup.
He struck out two Astros in the first, before striking out consecutive batters to end the second. After being staked to a 1-0 lead in the third, Price retired the Astros in order in the bottom half of the frame, sending Alex Bregman to the dugout after looking at a strike three.
Price struck out the first two batters of the fourth inning before losing a lengthy battle by surrendering a two-out double to Yuli Gurriel. But Price rather casually and calmly came back to get Marwin Gonzalez to helplessly flail at a 2-2 changeup in the dirt for a swinging strike three.
Price came back out for the fifth inning and kicked it off by — you guessed it — striking out Tony Kemp. That punchout set a playoff career high for Price at eight.
It was after that fifth inning that the Red Sox opened up a 4-0 lead for Price, on a three-run blast by Rafael Devers. Bolstered by the big lead, Price took the mound in the sixth and got a little help from Mookie Betts, who made a catch in right field to rob Alex Bregman of extra bases — a play that looked nearly identical to the controversial fan interference call in Game 4, only a few feet shorter of the wall.
After that, Price got George Springer to ground out, before going back to the changeup to get Jose Altuve to chase for a swinging strike three.
With that, Price’s night was over. He recorded a personal playoff career high in strikeouts with nine, while pitching six shutout innings. For some perspective, he had allowed seven earned runs in his previous six innings this postseason.
Despite the different results, Price said he didn’t feel that different in his preparation.
“No, honestly, I really didn’t. My last thought last night before I went to bed was probably a little bit different,” Price said. “The night before I pitch, I’m just envisioning myself making pitches. And last night, I was envisioning myself right here [celebrating in the clubhouse]. And just going through my head what I was going to say, and I’m happy.”
Price did deliver three postseason starts of more than six innings in 2015 for the Blue Jays, but he allowed five runs in two of those games and three runs in the other. His lone postseason start for Detroit in 2014 was pretty good (8 IP, 2 ER), albeit in a losing effort. That start broke a playoff stretch during which Price went 0-4 with a 5.81 ERA.
So while the 2014 start might have arguably been better than Price’s start on Thursday night, there’s simply no comparing the stakes. For three years running, Price has carried the weight of “postseason failure” on his shoulders. When he signed the richest contract ever for a pitcher, he answered multiple questions about his postseason struggles during his introductory press conference.
When he finally got a chance to quiet the chatter, he laid an egg in Cleveland in the 2015 playoffs. The Red Sox were swept out of the ALDS.
Last year, he pitched well in two relief stints, but he once again fell flat when returning to the mound as a stater this year, when he surrendered three runs and lasted just 1.2 innings against the Yankees.
But then, there were those “baby steps” last weekend against Houston, all setting the stage for this one. In his 12th postseason start, he finally earned a win.
While the pressure may not have really been on the Red Sox, given their 3-1 series lead, there’s no denying the pressure was on Price to simply perform like he’s capable of performing. And this time, he had the chance to carry his team where they wanted to go.
Finally, for the first time in a long time, and for the first time in a Red Sox uniform, the man delivered.