BOSTON — When David Price walked out to the Fenway Park bullpen to warm up before Game 2 of the 2018 World Series, Red Sox fans gave him a rousing ovation. It should have been unremarkable. It might have been the same kind of support the fans would have shown any Red Sox starter — Aaron Sele, Matt Clement, John Lackey — before a postseason start.
It sure felt like there was a message behind the cheers, though. The message was something like, “Go get ‘em. You’re our guy,” and that’s simple enough. Fans from Arizona to Washington would have shared that same encouragement for their team. But it also felt like there was some subtext behind the cheers, and it translated to, “I mean, of course you’re our guy. Why wouldn’t you be? Ha, ha. We have absolutely no reason to doubt you. Not a one. Now, uh, go get ‘em.”
I’m fluent in cheer-ese, and you gotta trust me on this one. There was something that dug deeper than the typical let’s-cheer-the-starting-pitcher ovation. There was a tacit acknowledgement that the postseason hasn’t always been Price’s best friend. It was more than a go-get-’em. There was also a spirited you-got-this.
Price did have this. He allowed two runs over six innings and set the tone with a brilliant start to the game, with his changeup tumbling and befuddling, which set up his fastball perfectly. If he kept it up, Tom Emanski would have been raptured, but alas, there were speed bumps in the third and certainly the fourth. Still, Price was a reason the Red Sox won Game 2, just like he was a reason they were in the World Series to begin with.
This makes sense when you consider that Price is an extraordinarily talented pitcher.
This doesn’t make sense if you ascribe a lot of importance to Price’s postseason history, which used to make it seem like he crumbled under pressure.
I have some good news for you, though: You’re not going to have to deal with this kind of story for much longer. This is the decline of the starting pitcher with something to prove. This is probably the dead-cat bounce, the last gasp. In the future, Price-type narratives won’t exist.
I’m thrilled and bored at the same time.
This is a heck of a World Series for this last gasp of individualism, at least. Not only is there Price trying to overcome an unfair reputation in the Fall Classic, but there’s also Clayton Kershaw, the greatest modern inspiration of postseason hot takes. It’s only because of Chris Sale that we weren’t blessed with a Kershaw/Price matchup in Game 1, which is a shame. It should have been a one-game World Series, with bullpens not allowed. Again, please vote for me in the MLB commissioner primaries because I’m pretty sure there are commissioner primaries.
But, wait, that name up there. Chris ... Sale? Seems familiar. All I know is that it’s not a name that’s encumbered with postseason narratives. Sale has made four postseason starts, some good, some not, even as he’s been good enough to miss a whole mess of bats.
We’ll never have this same cliffhanger will-he-or-won’t-he with him. Baseball is all bullpen-fancy now, and the expectation of a pitcher like Sale will be for four or five innings. Six, if you’re feeling froggy. Do your best to dominate, and really do your best not to screw up, because there are a cavalry of fastball monsters behind you. If the starting pitcher does fine, that’s great! If he gets into trouble, the cavalry of fastball monsters will come in sooner than expected. No big deal.
For instance, Sale left Game 1 of the World Series after four innings, and nobody gave a hot damn. There weren’t think pieces and hrrrm-a-la-doos about him leaving early. It was rational, expected. He did his best, and then there was trouble, so the fastball monsters were sent in. If we’re all lucky, there won’t be a lot of hot Chris Sale-in-the-postseason takes in our future.
In the near future, aces will try their best, and then their managers will go to a fastball monster at the slightest sign of trouble. When Sale starts for a team in the 2027 postseason, the lede won’t have anything to do with him ripping the monkey off his back. He’ll just be a guy starting in the postseason, acting as a gateway drug to the bullpen.
So treasure this? Or celebrate that it will die an ignominious death? One or both will do.
Think back to one of the starts that gave Price his reputation. It was in the 2015 ALCS, and it was entirely unfair. The 2015 Royals were what happened when a line-drive single made love with reactor-grade plutonium, and I don’t think we’ll ever understand it. In the bottom of the 7th, with the Blue Jays leading, 3-0, Price came in to continue his brilliance. The Royals did this against him:
- run-scoring groundout
There were outs sprinkled in, but it was a perfect 2015 Royals inning. So many singles.
This was a different era of baseball — three years ago, man, what an weirdo alien hellscape — but you can still twitch and wonder where in the heck Blue Jays manager John Gibbons was during all those hits. Some of them were hard, even.
A pitcher who does that in the fourth inning today won’t live to see the fifth. And yet, there, just a couple years ago, we had David Price being expected to soldier through the seventh because his team had no other plan in place. If their ace couldn’t do it, what chance did the bullpen stand?
That wasn’t fair, and we’re smarter now, maybe. But it was still baggage that he was carrying into Game 2 of the World Series, with no guarantees that he would shed it. It added to the cheers before the game. It added to the wonder during the game, when Price was carving up Matt Kemp like this in the second:
It’s so beautiful. And this performance is the obvious focus after a Game 2 win. Price did it. He persevered. There probably shouldn’t have been baggage in the first place.
This might be the last story of its kind, at least for a good, long while. Bullpens will shoulder the burden now. They will take the blame when necessary. The starters have never been less important
The loss of that exhausting pitcher-needs-to-prove-himself narrative is not a bad thing, mind you. In Game 2, Price got away with a couple pitches, as most starters do. Justin Turner got a meatball in the top of the first, but he could only foul it off. If he gets into one, maybe this is a much different column. That goes for if J.D. Martinez doesn’t dunk a single into right, or if Andrew Benintendi doesn’t make a miracle catch, or if ... maybe if those happen, nobody’s noticing Price right now. Maybe he still has the reputation.
It’s a lot of fun to pay attention to starting pitchers who are challenging their past mistakes. I’m not sure it’s healthy, though. Baseball is all about bad pitches fouled back to the screen and good pitches dribbled to the third baseman for a hit. Aggregating a pitcher’s entire career into postseason successes and failures with such a small sample seems like reviewing Animal Farm by reading only the first six words of each page. You might get the gist? But putting too much brain power into it isn’t wise.
The Red Sox are two wins away from winning the World Series, and if the Dodgers want to win instead, they’ll have to take four games out of five, including at least a game back at Fenway Park. It’s not impossible, but it sure doesn’t look great. The Red Sox are in this spot in part because of David Price, oft-maligned and forever talented. He’s an endangered species now, the extremely talented starting pitcher who needed to find validation in the postseason.
These won’t exist a lot in the near future. David Price is a dying breed, and he finally drank the blood of the postseason monkey on his back. Oh, it was so warm and nourishing, glug glug glug. But there won’t be enough starters with the kind of experience to pick apart. Bullpens will take care of that.
For now, Price has a signature game to follow up his last signature game, so appreciate it while you can. You probably won’t see anything like it again for a decade or three.