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Price Index

After securing Tampa Bay's ticket to the World Series, rookie pitcher sees importance level rise to the point of introducing Obama at rally.

October 21, 2008|Bill Shaikin | Shaikin is a Times staff writer.

ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. — He was in college last year, in the minor leagues last month, in the recesses of the bullpen last week. And yet, there he was Monday, introducing Barack Obama at a rally in Tampa, Fla.

For once, David Price said he was nervous.

"Public speaking is my enemy," Price said. "I'd rather come in with a 3-and-0 count, with the bases loaded, in a tie game, on the road."

He inherited a situation almost as dire Sunday. The kid slew the dragon, recording the four outs that sent the Tampa Bay Rays into their first World Series and sent the Boston Red Sox and their fans into Nation Hibernation.

Not bad for a guy with five weeks in the major leagues, with no saves. And not good for the other guys -- you haven't seen him, and good luck hitting him.

"He's been in our back pocket," Manager Joe Maddon said. "It's a great weapon to have."

Maddon knows full well how October can turn on the deployment of a surprise rookie pitching weapon. In 2002, as the Angels' bench coach, he saw Francisco Rodriguez show up in September and dominate October, and he saw John Lackey win Game 7 of the World Series, on short rest.

So Maddon did not bother to worry that Price was a rookie, that he was not a proven closer.

"It's a matter of who the young guy is," Maddon said. "Any young guy can handle it if they have that kind of makeup. John Lackey rode in on his horse with a 10-gallon hat. Frankie came up with all the bells and whistles."

Price came up as the can't-miss phenom. The Dodgers selected him out of high school in the 19th round, after he said he had told scouts he would attend college and asked them to stop calling.

"I changed my voice mail," he said. "I was getting calls in third period."

He pitched three years at Vanderbilt, and the Rays took him with the first overall pick in last year's draft. He did not sign in time to play in the minor leagues last season, so the Rays got their first look at him in spring training.

His fastball touched 100 mph, and he struck out the side in his debut, but the Rays knew they had something special when their veteran closer and mentor, Troy Percival, introduced Price in a team meeting and told him to tell a joke.

Price, known to that point as the quiet left-hander with the loud fastball, made Percival the butt of the joke.

"He absolutely slammed him, in front of the whole group," Maddon said. "At that moment, he won over Percy, and everybody else."

He had another moment Sunday, when Maddon decided Price would be right. The Rays already had burned four pitchers in the eighth inning, the Red Sox had the bases loaded, and Maddon summoned Price to protect a 3-1 lead in Game 7.

Evan Longoria, the Rays' rookie third baseman, saddled up next to Price.

"This is what you were born for," Longoria told Price. "This is what you've played baseball for your whole life."

Not that Price needed a laugh, and not that Longoria was trying to get one out of him, but Price chuckled anyway. This was Longoria, two years removed from Long Beach State, presenting himself as a sage.

"And I'm older than him," Price said.

By six weeks, anyway. Longoria turned 23 two weeks ago.

Price faced J.D. Drew, who had hit a game-winning home run against the Angels' Rodriguez during the first round of the playoffs, who had hit a two-run home run against Tampa Bay closer Dan Wheeler during Boston's seven-run comeback in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series.

Price struck out Drew. He retired the Red Sox in the ninth inning, striking out two, then found himself suffocating beneath a dog pile of joy.

"I thought I was going to die," Price said. "Me and Navvy [catcher Dioner Navarro] were trying to gasp for air."

This does not necessarily mean Price will close for the Rays in the World Series. Maddon said he would have removed Price in favor of right-hander Grant Balfour had Dustin Pedroia come up; Maddon also said Percival, who has not pitched since Sept. 28 because of injury, could be activated for the World Series.

Six Rays pitchers had at least one save during the regular season. Price got his first save Sunday, eight days after he got his first victory. In the regular season, he has neither a save nor a victory.

"We have nine or 10 guys in the 'pen," Price said. "I don't think Joe has any problem throwing any one of them out there. If someone gets in trouble, I could be out there in the third or fourth inning."

As he talked Monday, Price admitted to a touch of weariness. He got four hours of sleep Sunday night, in between the thrill of victory and a few rounds of video games, between the flood of voice mails and text messages and the rush to get to the Obama rally.

Obama personally congratulated Price and the five teammates in attendance at the rally, assuring them that he sees the Rays on television, at least in the highlights.

"That's what he looks forward to," Price said, "going home at night and watching sports."

Perhaps Price and Obama have not met for the last time. With one victory from Obama and four more from the Rays, Price and Obama could meet again next year, when the president welcomes the World Series champions to the White House.

--

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

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