Homer Bailey wasn't the only pitcher who recaptured his 2012 form on Tuesday night. In his first start after missing a month and a half due to a triceps strain, David Price finally flashed the dominant form that helped him win the AL Cy Young award, blanking the Astros for seven innings and striking out a season-high 10 in the Rays' 8-0 win.
Price left his May 15 start against the Red Sox after just three innings due to triceps tightness. It was hardly the first frustrating moment of the 27-year-old lefty's season. He had pitched to a 6.26 ERA through his first four starts — all Tampa Bay losses — while lasting no more than six innings, and just as he had begun to show signs of turning things around, with a 3.64 ERA and 27/6 strikeout-to-walk ratio over his next four starts, he came up lame, and the team meandered around .500. Including its May 15 loss to Boston after he was pulled, it was 20-19 while he was active.
With Tuesday night's win, the Rays are now 45-39, though even after a stretch of playing better baseball, they've gone 15-15 since the beginning of June and lost ground in the AL East. While they were 4 1/2 back as of Price's injury, they're now 5 1/2 back, though they did pick up half a game in the wild-card race.
As promising as Price's performance was, Tuesday's combined shutout didn't exactly come against the 1927 Yankees. The loss knocked the Astros into a virtual tie for last in the league in scoring at 3.69 runs per game. Over their past five — all losses — they've managed just five runs, and over their past 29 games dating back to the beginning of June, they've averaged just 3.10 runs per game. Tuesday's lineup featured seven hitters who began the evening with an OPS of 700 or below, with first baseman Chris Carter and backup catcher Carlos Corporan the only exceptions.
Against such feeble competition, Price did show improved velocity, at least as far as his two-seam fastball, which he threw for 27 of his 70 pitches (yes, he needed only 10 pitches per inning, and never went above 12), was concerned. Via the PITCHf/x data at BrooksBaseball.net, the two-seamer averaged 95.7 mph, up from his season average of 94.4 mph if not matching last year's mark of 96.2. He only averaged 93.8 mph with his two-seamer, but then he threw just seven of those. He relied more on his changeup (19 pitches) and cutter (11 pitches), mixing in half a dozen curves.
Even with the seven shutout innings, Price's ERA is still a gaudy 4.65, but he hasn't pitched all that badly. His strikeout and walk rates are stellar — 8.6 and 2.0 per nine, respectively — to the point that his ratio is a career-best 4.2, up from last year's 3.5. His home run rate (1.2 per nine) is swollen, 70 percent above last year's mark, and his .339 batting average on balls in play is 53 points higher than last year. Some of that may be his fault, but hardly all of it, as his 3.64 FIP attests. Just before he went on the DL, the Rays discovered the source of the severe allergies he was experiencing that caused rashes and blurred his vision, making it difficult for him to see the signs from the catcher. The issue was connected to a chemical the team uses to clean its uniforms, and his clothing is now being washed separately.
The Rays could certainly use a return to form from Price, as their rotation has been underwhelming this year; the unit's 4.25 ERA and 48 percent quality start rate both rank ninth in the league. Alex Cobb (3.01 ERA) and Matt Moore (3.65 ERA) have generally pitched well, but the former is on the disabled list due to a concussion sustained when he was struck by a batted ball on June 15 and is probably weeks away from returning. Jeremy Hellickson (4.90 ERA) and Roberto "Fausto" Hernandez (4.98 ERA) have been nothing special due to high home run rates (1.2 and 1.5 per nine, respectively), and fill-in Chris Archer (4.40 ERA) has struggled mightily with his control, walking 5.3 per nine through six starts. The latest newcomer, 24-year-old righty Alex Colome, has a 2.25 EA through three starts, but that ledger includes as many unearned runs as earned ones, and he's walked 5.1 per nine himself.
The burning question isn't whether a healthier Price can help the Rays in this year's race, it's whether he'll do so as a member of the team. Making $10.125 million this year, with two more years of arbitration eligibility left, he's eventually going to price himself out of Tampa Bay's range; the team has no chance of approaching the recent extensions of Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez or the pending Clayton Kershaw one. With no elite pitchers on this summer's trade market unless the Phillies decide to offer up Cliff Lee, Price could fetch a considerable haul in prospects and/or other club-controlled talent — assuming he's healthy. At the moment, the Rays don't appear to be marketing him; last week, Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal said that while the Rays were spotted scouting Rangers prospects recently, short of an outright collapse they plan to wait until the offseason to deal him. In the short term, the Rays almost certainly have a better shot at a playoff spot with Price than without, but the team's progress over the next four weeks bears watching, particularly amid a crowded AL East race that recently saw all five teams above .500 (the Blue Jays have since slipped a game under). Evan Longoria is currently battling plantar fasciitis, and if he has to take a trip to the DL, the Rays' hopes will take a hit; last year, they were 47-27 with him in the lineup, 43-45 without him. If their season starts to unravel, Price could be on the move.