On Baseball: David Price Gets His Championship
LOS ANGELES — Tim Corbin spent Sunday afternoon coaching high school prospects at a camp in Nashville. Corbin is the head coach at Vanderbilt, and he told the players about the day David Price lost the final game of his college career.
This was in 2007, and Price was lined up to be the first overall pick in the draft later that week. Vanderbilt held the No. 1 national ranking and was seeking its first-ever trip to the College World Series. Price was undefeated and had pitched two days earlier, but he offered to work in relief in the regional final against Michigan.
Price allowed a home run, spoiling Vanderbilt’s hopes for a title. But in Corbin’s retelling, it is not the result that mattered. It was Price’s desire to take the ball for his teammates.
“I told them the story in terms of what this guy was willing to do and why he was willing to do it,” Corbin said by phone on Sunday from a sports bar in Nashville, as he watched Price pitch the Boston Red Sox past the Los Angeles Dodgers, 5-1, to clinch the World Series in Game 5.
“It was all predicated on team. I talked about how, when you buy in to the notion of a greater union, and you buy in to the notion of team, there are no limits to what you’ll do. That’s how David was wired as a kid, and that’s how he was wired today.”
A year after that college letdown, Price was pitching in the World Series as a rookie with the Tampa Bay Rays. Yet it took him a decade to return.
In between, Price did almost everything a pitcher could want to do. He won a Cy Young Award. He made five All-Star teams. He led his league, at various times, in victories, earned run average, innings and strikeouts. He helped three more franchises reach the postseason — the Detroit Tigers, the Toronto Blue Jays and the Red Sox, who signed him to a seven-year, $217 million contract in December 2015.
All that was missing was a championship, and the reputation for clutch pitching that would go with it. In his first 10 postseason starts, Price was 0-9 with a 6.03 E.R.A., capped by a miserable division series outing against the Yankees on Oct. 6.
“I give Alex Cora a heck of a lot of credit,” said Jack Morris, the Hall of Fame starter, who covered the World Series for MLB.com. “There’s a lot of managers who would have put him out in the bullpen after that first round and left him there. But he said, ‘No, we need you,’ and he went out there and did it.”
Price now stands with Morris — who won twice in the World Series in 1984 and 1991 — in the pantheon of pitchers who have owned the brightest stage. Price was 2-0 with a 1.98 E.R.A. against the Dodgers, beating them in Game 2, collecting two outs in relief in Game 3 and then beating them again with seven dazzling innings in Game 5.
“He’s got it in here,” said Red Sox starter Rick Porcello, patting his chest. “He’s got a big heart. That was as good as it gets. I’m speechless. That was an absolutely stunning performance.”
Price assumed Chris Sale would start Game 5 until Cora told him otherwise on the field after Game 4. Price quickly went into his pre-start shell, eating his postgame meal alone in the traveling secretary’s office, listening to rap and hip-hop through his headphones. One selection, Price said, was “The Flute Song,” by Russ.
“People keep talking, I just keep winning,” the chorus goes, continuing after an expletive, “They talkin’ reckless; I don’t believe ’em.”
The lyrics fit a pitcher who knew there was only one way to escape the question that had greeted him in Boston and never ceased: Why did he pitch so poorly under pressure? Price’s simple stock answer — “If you don’t like it, pitch better” — made for a good sound bite, but belied his frustration with the doubters.
“It was tough, absolutely,” Price said in his news conference after Game 5. “To answer that question in spring training — day and day and day and day, and over and over and over and over, anytime it got to September, playoffs — I hold all the cards now, and that feels so good. That feels so good. I can’t tell you how good it feels to hold that trump card. And you guys have had it for a long time. You’ve played that card extremely well. But you don’t have it anymore, none of you do, and that feels really good.”
Price and Boston had seemed to be an uncomfortable fit. In 2013, after a playoff loss for the Rays at Fenway Park, he lashed out at critics in the news media on Twitter. In 2017, he berated the Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley, a popular broadcaster, on a team flight after Eckersley had mildly criticized pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez on the air. Price has also publicly clashed with reporters and has been a frequent target of talk-radio critics.
At times, it seemed Price would have been happier with a smaller-market team like the St. Louis Cardinals, who had offered him $187 million in free agency. He went for the better deal with the Red Sox — who gave him an opt-out clause after this off-season — and Corbin was cautiously hopeful it would be a good fit.
“I wanted it to be, for him and for Boston, but you never know how that’s going to pan out,” said Corbin, a native of Wolfeboro, N.H. “He’s had to live through the blender of emotions and circumstances and outcomes. But, look, I remember when they gave Carl Yastrzemski a hard time, and Jim Rice a hard time, and my dad remembered when they gave Ted Williams a hard time. It’s like New York — we’re with you, win or tie.”
Price’s first two Octobers with the Red Sox ended with elimination in the division series. A troublesome elbow limited him to relief work last fall against Houston, but the Boston pitching coach, Dana LeVangie, noticed that Price had thrived in the bullpen. LeVangie mentioned it to Cora soon after the Red Sox made him manager.
“David loves to be ready to compete on a daily basis,” Cora said, repeating what LeVangie told him. “He enjoys being available, and he was available the whole time — the whole time — from the division series to the championship series to the World Series. There was a text: ‘I’m ready for tomorrow. Count on me. Use me.’”
Cora was eager to do so. Sale dealt with shoulder inflammation in the second half of the regular season and with a stomach virus during the A.L.C.S. against Houston, so Cora called on Price to start Game 5 of that series on three days’ rest. Price worked six innings and won, helped by a mechanical adjustment he made while playing catch the day before.
Price held his hands higher in his delivery, he said, which eliminated a hitch and helped his timing. Cora said he noticed an improvement in Price’s changeup, a pitch Price learned from James Shields, an older teammate during his days with the Rays.
Price, 33, was the oldest pitcher on Boston’s World Series roster and has striven to help his teammates in similar ways. Cora called him a clubhouse leader who helps fellow starters by analyzing video and watching their bullpen sessions. Nathan Eovaldi, who also excelled in the postseason, called Price one of the best teammates he has had.
“He’s very caring, so supportive,” said Eovaldi, who has pitched for four teams. “He’s just an unbelievable human.”
Price said he would have started every postseason game if Cora had asked. He lasted into the eighth inning on Sunday, deeper than any Red Sox starter had gone all postseason. He felt strong, he said, acknowledging only one painful toss — when he heaved his championship cap over the tall netting behind the dugout, where visiting Red Sox fans had chanted his name.
“It hurt,” he said, smiling. “I don’t know why I did that.”
Price’s father, Bonnie, joined him on the field after the victory. So did Price’s mother, wife, son, friends and in-laws.
“He had a job to do and he was fortunate and he did it,” Bonnie Price said. “He’s all about the team. He was raised that way. He fulfilled his commitment from the day he signed.”
From the start, that was always the mandate for Price. John Henry, the principal owner who authorized a major-league-high payroll of more than $230 million this season, was paying Price expressly to do what he did: win the clinchers for the pennant and the championship.
“Those two performances are why we’re standing here tonight,” Henry said.
A year after Henry gave Price the deal, Price donated $2.5 million to upgrade the baseball facilities at Vanderbilt, where former players have their own locker room for off-season training. In effect, Price remains part of his old college team even while working in Boston, where his current teammates revere him.
“He flat-out got it done,” said Sale, who struck out Manny Machado for the final out Sunday. “It seemed like he threw every bullet. He put it on the line for us. He gutted it out. He was unbelievable.”
When it was over, Price was the first player to reach Sale and catcher Christian Vazquez on the field. After the clubhouse celebration, Price brought his goggles to the interview room. Asked what it meant to be valued as a teammate, he paused for 20 seconds, turned his head, dabbed his eyes and cleared his throat.
“A lot,” he said, finally. “I mean, this is a game we get to play, and it’s the relationships that you make while you do this.”
Price paused and wiped his eyes again on his shirt.
“That’s what makes this game so special,” he said.