David Price had already planned his postgame press conference for Game 5 before the start of Game 4, knowing his newfound changeup would do the talking.
HOUSTON — Officially, David Price recorded his first postseason win as a starter at 10:42 p.m. Central time. The final out of Game 5 of the ALCS settled into the glove of leftfielder Andrew Benintendi, just beneath a scoreboard that read BOS 4 HOU 1, giving the Red Sox the pennant and setting off a celebration that consumed 35 cases of Chandon sparkling wine, a half a pallet of Sam Adams ’76 and the clothing of every person within spraying range.
But pitching coach Dana LeVangie could tell what was coming three and a half hours earlier, from Price’s first few pitches. By the time Price stalked off the mound after six shutout innings, shook manager Alex Cora’s hand and barked, “F--- yeah!”, LeVangie already knew.
For bullpen catcher Mike Brenly, that moment came 23 hours before the bubbly, when Price warmed up in the late innings of Game 4 as insurance against an implosion by closer Craig Kimbrel. Price’s stuff was as crackling as Brenly had ever felt it, so much so that he kept interrupting the metronomic session to express admiration.
And Price? While we were all wondering if we would get the version of David Price whose two-run complete game in a Game 163 tiebreaker put the Rays into the 2013 playoffs but does not count toward his postseason stats or the version who had compiled the worst October starter’s numbers (0–9 in 10 starts, with a 6.03 ERA) in the history of the sport; while Cora was thinking about the MLB Network segment in which another talking head ripped his pitcher; while the 43,210 fans in attendance rooted and prayed and yelled … David Price was planning his postgame press conference. Because David Price knew 30 hours before it went into the record books that he had found something.
America loves nothing more than a redemption story, and the Red Sox seemed intent on providing us as many as possible.
Start at the bottom of the lineup, where centerfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. won ALCS MVP six months after being benched for the better part of a week in the hope that the team could salvage his swing. He was hitting .173 and slugging .264 in May when Cora sat him down. Bradley worked extensively with hitting coaches Tim Hyers and Andy Barkett to keep his back foot down and push off the ground rather than letting his momentum drag him forward. But even after hitting a three-run double to break a tie in Game 2 of the series, Bradley felt lost. A quick session in the batting cage, and a tip from a teammate, before Game 3 helped him rediscover his stroke, which he used to hit a grand slam a few hours later. And who was that teammate?
That would be DH J.D. Martinez, who had a .687 OPS in parts of three seasons when he was released by these very same Astros. He revamped his swing, became an evangelist for the Church of Hit the Ball in the Air, led the majors with a .690 slugging percentage last year … and did not sign in Boston as a free agent until late February because his market did not develop as he expected. This, naturally, gave him 29 other teams to prove wrong; he has reached base at a .415 clip this postseason and hit two home runs, including a three-run blast in Game 1 of the ALDS.
That came in especially handy when closer Craig Kimbrel entered the game up two runs and allowed a home run to the first batter he faced, Yankees rightfielder Aaron Judge. After a regular season in which he allowed runs in three straight outings only once, Kimbrel had been torched in every one of his postseason appearances before Thursday. (During the celebration, he apologized to Boston fans for all the “heart attacks.”) The Red Sox struggled to identify the problem, until Game 4, when they noticed that he was tipping his breaking balls. Cora allowed him to get six outs for the first time in his career—Kimbrel thanked his manager afterward for sticking with him—and then the team went to work the next day, adjusting his setup out of the stretch position. Kimbrel struck out two and allowed zero runs in his inning on Thursday.
“Small, little things,” said LeVangie.
That was what Price—the member of the Red Sox who most needed redemption—found in the hours before Game 4, playing catch to stretch out his arm. Just small, little things: a slightly altered changeup grip, a few inches of height with his hands as he set up, a marginally raised arm slot. He took his adjustments with him to the bullpen that night, where Brenly eagerly considered what they might mean.
“I don’t want to give away too much of his secrets,” said Brenly. “It was very little and not a huge deal to the common eye, but it put him in the right position.”
In his disastrous three-run, five-out start against the Yankees in the ALDS, Price threw 10 changeups, for 24% of his pitches, all but one for balls. On Thursday Price threw 39 changeups, 42% of his offerings. Batters waved lamely at 12 of them. They put in play only four, all weakly-hit outs. He mixed his other pitches well—a 92-mph four-seam fastball, a 93-mph two-seamer, a 91-mph cutter—and kept hitters off balance.
“I continued to do what I figured out yesterday,” Price said in the postgame press conference he had pictured.
That was the only departure from his normal starter’s routine. As he was walking across the field from the bullpen after Game 4, Cora had motioned to him that he would start Game 5. He began planning for the moment immediately. He would eventually go through his regular preparation and warmup. But first he settled into bed, where he usually visualizes himself executing pitches. On Wednesday night, he instead visualized the answers he would give as he stood at the edge of a pulsing clubhouse choked with cigar smoke and carbonation, goggles on his forehead and champagne dripping from his beard. He would talk about how good it felt to collect that first postseason win as a starter and how excited he was to be heading to the World Series, which begins Tuesday. He usually forces himself to stay in the moment, not to worry about the next hitter or even the next pitch, but just this once, he let his mind wander. Because he knew.