CLEVELAND—David Price looked like a tragic hero again on Friday afternoon, when he allowed five runs on 65 pitches over 3 1/3 innings to the Indians in another October flop. The Red Sox needed him to shut down Cleveland to avoid plummeting into an 0–2 series hole, but Boston ended up losing, 6–0, and Price once more proved flawed in one particular way: When it counts. Meanwhile, on Thursday, Red Sox manager John Farrell had introduced a postseason audience to a different literary device: the unreliable narrator.
During his press conference that afternoon, hours before Game 2, Farrell told the assembled media and the baseball world a story about Price. In Farrell’s account, his nominal ace’s first season in Boston had not been nearly as disappointing as it had appeared, if you only looked at a few key metrics. He also downplayed Price’s well-covered playoff frustrations, suggesting that he hadn’t looked deep into them because he hadn’t witnessed them in person.
Farrell’s tale was as accurate as Amy Dunne’s in Gone Girl.
“He’s had a very good year for us,” Farrell said, of his $30 million-a-year pitcher, whose 3.99 ERA during the regular season was nine-tenths of a run higher than his previous career standard. “It might not have met the expectations of some, but when you consider a guy who’s pitched the most innings in a year in his career, has the highest number of strikeouts, personally, in a given season for him, he has been a dependable starter for us.” While Price struck out 228 batters in 230 innings this year, the problem with Farrell’s assertion was that he had reached 271 whiffs in 248 1/3 innings just two years ago. Perhaps Price had not been quite as dependable as Farrell thought.
Still, Farrell’s misstatement was understandable, perhaps the result of a misread stats page and nothing more. His next one was more mystifying. A reporter asked him if, given Price’s Cy Young resume, he was surprised by his history of postseason struggles. Friday would be Price's 10th October appearance since 2010, and over his previous nine he had a 5.46 ERA, and his teams had a 1–8 record.
Farrell said that he’d only ever watched Price pitch in the playoffs a few times. One was in 2008, when he was the pitching coach for the Red Sox and Price, then a rookie, came out of the Rays’ bullpen for three brief ALCS appearances. The other was another ALCS relief appearance, for the Blue Jays last year against the Royals, that Farrell happened to catch on TV. “So to speak about all the other games—I’m not equipped to do that,” the manager said.
The strange thing was that Farrell had once spoken, at length, about a different Price playoff outing with which he was intimately familiar. “There wasn’t as much swing and miss as we’ve seen against him,” Farrell said then, later adding, “Tonight wasn’t the case [in which] he typically gets a key strikeout when he needs it.” These were Farrell’s observations on Oct. 5, 2013, in the moments after his Red Sox had finished blasting Price, still with the Rays, for seven earned runs on nine hits over seven innings in Game 2 of the ALDS. “Any time you get seven runs off of David Price, you've had a good night, and tonight was that,” Farrell had said. It was his second playoff game in his first season as Boston’s manager, and 25 days later he’d win the World Series. You’d think he would have remembered it.
The point, however, is not to fact check Farrell’s presser fabulism, but to understand it. Just as Farrell probably didn’t intentionally broadcast bogus statistics, he probably didn’t mean to skip over the most significant instance in which he’d ever watched Price pitch in the postseason. The likelihood is that he hadn’t thought very hard about it, because thinking very hard about it would do neither his team nor his pitcher any good. “The reason why David Price signed to come to Boston is to pitch in the postseason,” he said. Farrell’s unreliable narration was not devious but protective—even hopeful.
At another moment during the press conference, a reporter asked Farrell if he thought Price was motivated to put his playoff failures behind him. “I don't know that he puts a whole lot of stock in what has happened or the anticipation of what lies ahead,” he replied. “He's really good at staying on task and what's needed today.”
This, again, seemed optimistic. Although Farrell had seen more of Price in the postseason than he claimed to remember, he’d never shared a playoff clubhouse with him. Price himself admitted that things are different this time of year. “Whenever you get to playoff baseball it feels like Opening Day all over again,” he said on Thursday. “Everybody is refreshed. Everybody has got that extra adrenaline. And to be able to just calm those emotions and go out there. You can't try and do too much. You have to understand that what you bring to the table is good enough. And you have to be one of those pieces to that puzzle. You can't be the whole picture.” It sounded as if he were not outlining skills that he already had but ones that he still hoped to acquire.
“I want to be dominant,” he said, before Friday’s start. He wasn’t, and he was once again done in by a brutal October inning, in this case the second. With one out in that frame, he allowed three straight singles—to Carlos Santana, Jose Ramirez and Brandon Guyer—and then a three-run home run to Lonnie Chisenhall.
Aside from Chisenhall’s bomb, which left his bat at 106.3 mph, none of the Indians’ third-inning hits was struck particularly hard; Guyer’s single registered a velocity of just 64.1 mph. But the outcome was the same: yet another disappointing playoff outing for Price, and a commanding lead for his opponents. That 4–0 margin was more than enough for Price’s counterpart, Corey Kluber, who seems immune to adrenaline and likes to maintain such a flat affect that his nickname in Cleveland is The Klubot. Kluber fired seven shutout innings, allowing just three hits. “There’s a fire in there that burns a lot,” said his manager, Terry Francona. “You can’t be that good without it. But he won’t let anybody know it, which I think is great.”
The Red Sox’ loss can’t entirely be pinned on Price. Baseball’s top-scoring offense went just 3-for-29 in Game 2, with all of the hits singles. Still, Price’s outing was the story, and it is increasingly difficult to attribute his postseason record to bad luck and a small sample size. Still, the pitcher insisted, “I know good things are coming to me in October baseball. I know that.”
If they are to come to him in 2016, it had better happen soon. Kluber’s dominant start meant that Francona could rest the two relief aces on which he relied so heavily in Game 1—Andrew Miller and Cody Allen, both of whom had thrown 40 pitches—as Dan Otero and Bryan Shaw followed Kluber with a pair of spotless innings. Now, for Sunday’s Game 3 in Boston, Francona’s bullpen will again be at full strength.
That only makes the Red Sox’ task more challenging. Just 12% of clubs that have fallen behind 0–2 in a divisional series have ended up winning it, and Boston must take three in a row from a club not prone to losing streaks; this year, the Indians never had a drought reach as many as four games. At this point, a Red Sox series win would take the form of a third literary device: a surprise ending.