St. Petersburg, Fla. — David Price had a couple of options Thursday on a remarkable day at Tropicana Field.
He could have bagged that backdoor slider he threw in the first inning to Brandon Guyer, a player so nondescript he sounds like one of those guys who holds the Thursday lead at the U.S. Open golf championship.
That was Price’s view, anyway, after Guyer steered Price’s slider into the right-center field gap. It went for a triple and drove home a man who was on base only because Eugenio Suarez made a throwing error on what otherwise was a forgettable ground ball.
Or, Price — if he were a smart aleck — might have asked manager Brad Ausmus if he could take a crack at batting. Would a pitcher have been any less likely to have delivered on a day when the Tigers got only four hits, two of which came from the day’s defensive goat, Suarez?
Price was a marvel Thursday as sentiment combined with two teams’ pitchers to create an exquisite monument to baseball craftsmanship, and also, to the adoration a community can invest in a single man, as was clear in Price’s homecoming.
The Tigers’ big prize from July’s deadline trade mart was pitching at his old workplace, against his old buddies gathered in that dugout along the first-base line. Against them Price put together an astounding string of numbers:
One hit. A single, unearned run. Twenty-three consecutive batters were either thwarted or destroyed by Price’s five-pitch weaponry. And, for a final testament to a man who was as much magician as pitcher, Price not once during the 26 batters he faced went to a three-ball count in a game the Tigers lost, 1-0.
“That was something I really never thought I’d have to do, pitching against these guys in this ballpark — pitching against them at any time,” said Price, who after the game stood in front of his locker within a strange new area for him at Tropicana Field, the visitor’s clubhouse, where it seemed all of Tampa Bay’s media had gathered.
“Guyer, I know I shouldn’t throw him a backdoor cutter,” Price said. “I did, and it wasn’t a good pitch, and he hit it well. I shouldn’t have thrown it.”
One pitch. Tigers pitchers sometimes are left to regret a supposed mistake that might otherwise have been forgiven and forgotten — if their teammates had been able to score so much as a run.
The Tigers, though, have been shut out seven times in 2014. And as good as Rays starter Alex Cobb was in firing splitters that mangled the Tigers’ offense Thursday, their inability to score had Price’s new Tigers mates aching for their mate.
“We definitely should score one run,” said Torii Hunter, whose leadoff double in the seventh helped the Tigers to their best chance at scoring off Cobb and a pair of Rays relievers.
“At least one run,” Hunter said, half-laughing at his team’s futility. “One run.”
Hunter had a chance. He moved to third base on a hard, right-side infield ground-out by Miguel Cabrera, which put him in great shape as Victor Martinez arrived with one out and Hunter set to sprint home from third.
Martinez, of course, was intentionally walked. Next in line: J.D. Martinez, with a .305 batting average, 17 home runs, and 55 RBIs.
Cobb, though, was murdering Tigers batters with a split-finger pitch — more of a forkball — that was particularly tough on Martinez. He struck out three times in four at-bats, with his seventh-inning whiff freezing Hunter at third. And that’s where he and the Tigers died when Nick Castellanos flew out to deep center.
“Cobb, he has that good splittie (DESK: Hunter called it a “splittie”) working, and he was hitting his spots with a curveball, and his fastball he located well,” Hunter said. “I’ve seen Cobb pitching against us like that before. He went against us in Detroit last year and was good.”
Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, whose team was banking on a three-game sweep of the Rays, had to agree with Hunter — and with anyone who said Price came within two random moments Thursday of an immaculate performance.
“I could have asked for a perfect game,” Ausmus said, dryly, “but that’s probably stretching it.”
The Tigers had one more chance in the eighth after Suarez lashed a one-out double to the left-field corner.
Rajai Davis followed with a soft fly to right that looked as if it would fall for a single. But the Rays had gone to a defensive replacement in the eighth, Kevin Kiermaier for Ben Zobrist. Kiermaier galloped in, dived, and snagged the ball off Tropicana’s turf.
“We were OK, they were slightly more OK,” said Ausmus, whose team moves to Minnesota for a game Friday, a day-night doubleheader Saturday, and a single series finale Sunday.
“The big picture is, we won two of three. If we can win every series here on out, we’ll be OK.”
That is, if they score enough runs, and avoid enough bullpen and defensive mis-steps, to win those series. Their starting pitchers, as Price affirmed Thursday, have everything else covered.