BOSTON -- A year ago at this time, David Price was on the disabled list, still more than a week away from making his first appearance following eight weeks of inaction because of inflammation in his left elbow. He did return, albeit in a limited role, pitching in five games down the stretch in relief without a run allowed and then throwing 6 2/3 scoreless innings out of the Red Sox bullpen in the four-game AL Division Series loss to the Astros.
It had been a difficult season for the left-hander, with the first lengthy DL stint of his career and an ugly confrontation with Red Sox broadcaster Dennis Eckersley during a team flight. The first-round flameout, even to a better Houston team, put a final scar on the season.
Price entered 2018 in the fourth year of a potential seven-year contract (he has an opt-out clause after this season that he's unlikely to exercise) with a lot to prove.
He's shown he's still one of the top left-handers in the league, and he proved in Friday night's showdown against the Astros at Fenway that his recent DL stint -- he left a game in late August after getting hit by a line drive -- wasn't a cause for concern. While the Astros ultimately pulled out the 6-3 victory against Joe Kelly, Price had Houston guessing all night. He retired 14 in a row at one point, struck out 10 in 6 1/3 innings -- seven looking -- and took a shutout into the seventh inning.
"It was good to see," Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. "We've been talking about [Chris] Sale and Price and rest and all this and all that, but you're never 100 percent sure if that's the right way to do it. Obviously, with [Price], he got hit. Even though he was ready a few days ago, you still hold your breath."
With a big lead in the AL East, the Red Sox can afford to be cautious with the starting pitchers. Sale has pitched just once since July 27, an Aug. 12 start in which he fanned 12 in five innings and hit 100 mph, but then landed back on the DL with inflammation in his left shoulder. He won't start in this series against the Astros, but he should start early next week. Price, likewise, probably wouldn't have gone on the DL if the Red Sox were neck-and-neck with the Yankees instead of nursing a nine-game lead.
More than anything, this game revealed the importance of Price to the Red Sox winning it all. The Astros exposed the leaky middle relief of the Boston bullpen, rallying against Ryan Brasier in the seventh to take a 3-2 lead after Price departed with two runners on, and then with three runs off Kelly in the eighth to take a 6-3 lead. Cora then delivered the news after the game that Matt Barnes, the team's most reliable setup guy most of the season, was unavailable with inflammation in his left hip and had an MRI on Thursday.
The seventh inning began with Alex Bregman's double down the line that hopped over the glove of Eduardo Nunez, and then Tyler White walked with one out. That was it for Price after 101 pitches. He said he was fine and wanted to stay in and still felt strong -- "I'm never going to ask out of a game" -- but Brasier came in to face Yuli Gurriel, who promptly doubled off the Green Monster. Cora said the pitch was supposed to be up and in, but Brasier missed the location.
With two outs, Tony Kemp pinch-hit and tried to work a walk on a 3-1 pitch at the knees by taking off for first base. The umpire called him back to the batter's box, and Kemp then flipped a soft double down the left-field line. "The 3-1 pitch was good," Kemp said. "But sometimes if you walk it off, the umpire calls it a ball. But [Brasier] made a good pitch there. I didn't really think I could drive it, so getting to 3-2, I was looking for a better pitch to drive. He went fastball in, and I just tried to foul it off, and it went down the left-field line. This game isn't something you can always explain."
The next inning against Kelly started the same way. George Springer fouled off a 3-2 pitch and then grounded a single into left field. Jose Altuve then reached on an infield single up the middle. Rather than turning two, the Red Sox now faced a two-on, no-out situation. Alex Bregman sat on a first-pitch, 100 mph fastball from Kelly and lined a base hit to load the bases. From there: sac fly, wild pitch, Tyler White RBI hit, game over, concern about the Boston bullpen ramped up another notch.
This kind of game points us ahead to the playoffs and a potential ALCS showdown. While the postseason trend is more innings from the bullpen and fewer from the starters, the Red Sox may have to go deeper with their starters than other teams if the bullpen doesn't start locking down more zeroes.
At the start of August, the Red Sox bullpen had a 3.34 ERA, sixth best in the majors. Since the beginning of August, it's 4.11, 18th in the majors. And since Aug. 24, it's 5.22, 24th in the majors. And now with Barnes nursing a sore hip, there's even more uncertainty.
So that gets us back to Price ... and his October history. After the game, a reporter asked Price why he's been able to finish the season strong in recent years. He had the abbreviated September last year, but in 2016 he had a 3.58 ERA in the second half compared to 4.34 in the first half. In 2015, when he was with the Blue Jays, he went 5-0 with a 2.32 ERA in September. Price paused at the question. "I don't know ... I've been bad in October."
Indeed, we know his history: He's 2-8 with a 5.03 ERA in his postseason career. The two wins came in relief. In nine starts, his team has lost all nine games. That's the burden Price will face once October rolls around. Considering the opponent on Friday, he just pitched one of the best games of the season for the Red Sox. If Nunez fields Bregman's double, he probably goes seven scoreless and the Red Sox win. In the end, though, it's October that matters now for the Red Sox.
That's when Price will have to prove himself again -- whether against the Astros or Indians or A's or Yankees. It makes him one of the most important players of this October.