NEW YORK -- One recent morning at Yankee Stadium, David Price was approached by a reporter who had inquired about an interview. A suspicious Price looked up after finishing tying his shoes and asked, "About what?"
These are confusing times for Price and the Tampa Bay Rays, who after Sunday night's win against the Tigers had won 10 of 12 games and 17 of their past 25 to suddenly surge back into the conversation in the American League East. Tampa woke upon Monday morning just 8.5 games out of first place after having gone 9-2 on a recent road trip against the Orioles, Yankees and Tigers.
On June 9, the Rays were a season-high 15 games out of first place. The win on Sunday pushed them out of last place for the first time since May 27.
"We're just capable of playing better baseball than we had been," Rays manager Joe Maddon said last week in the middle of his team's streak. "For me it was a matter of time and keep pushing pushing pushing, and don't permit to let anyone give up on the season because we certainly are not. But you have to be careful about that and guys are responding well."
For weeks, the only bit of conversation that trailed the Rays, who many had predicted to win the division, was about the possible dismantling their roster surely would see after spending most of the season in last place. In particular, most of the trade talk revolved around the former Cy Young winner Price, who quickly grew tired of all the speculation. In the middle of yet another successful year, Price, who was named an All-Star on Sunday, had to spend the majority of his press availability talking about the possibility of pitching elsewhere.
In reality, the questions about being traded almost began from the moment Price was brought up to the majors. Surely, the cost-conscious Rays would not be able to afford keeping Price once he reached free agency after the 2015 season. And nothing recently indicates that they will be able to keep him past 2015.
Understandably, Price had now become wary when any reporter approached him because he did not want to talk about the same uncomfortable subject he's been talking about for most of the season. The standard answers were: Yes, he wanted to stay in Tampa. No, he did not have any news about a possible trade. Yes, all of this talk was becoming a distraction.
Price had nothing more to offer on the topic.
When told that morning at Yankee Stadium that the subject of the interview would be to discuss his evolvement into one of the most precise pitchers in the game, Price let his guard down and seemed to lose any tension of having to once again snub someone. Price got up from his seat, crossed his arms, and invited the reporter to go ahead with the interview. But he cautioned, "let's keep it to that, OK?"
Few pitchers in the game have been as adept at making adjustments as Price. In his seventh year in the majors, Price is on pace to set a career high in strikeouts per nine innings (10.25) while at the same time lowering his walks per nine innings to a career low 1.29. Price's career low 3.5 percent walk rate ranks second in the majors. His 27.9 percent strikeout rate ranks third.
"I feel like at the major league level you see a lot of guys come up and come down and go down that have unbelievable stuff," Price said. "It's just their inability to command the strike zone whether it be with their fastball or their best breaking or whatever it is. And I want to make sure I can command my zone with all of my pitches. Doing that, it doesn't allow a hitter to sit on any certain pitch in any certain count. I think that kind of allows you to almost make more mistakes because you've been around the zone. They don't know what you want to throw."
He added: "I'm just on a good run. I feel like that as simple as my delivery was before, I feel like I've kind of made it a little bit more simple. I've taken a lot of the movement out of it. It's very repeatable, so it's easy for me to stay in my delivery and stay within my mechanics and that helps a lot."
Prior to his Cy Young-winning 2012 season, Price resolved to make tweaks to his mechanics to become a better pitcher. His 2011 season was not bad (12-13, 3.49) but he believed he was getting stagnant on the mound. The problem was that Price, who does not watch much video, didn't exactly know what he wanted to change.
So Price just began to experiment. He began to cut out extraneous movements that he thought were causing him to lose command. Price was not reinventing himself. He was only readjusting.
"I just did what felt good," Price said. "It's all about being comfortable on the mound. Being comfortable in uncomfortable situations. Stuff like that. Repetition and being out there, and when you are, getting positive results. That does a lot for a pitcher's confidence: Knowing that you're out on the mound and being in control. The game starts and stops with the pitcher, and I have the ball."
In previous years, Price had shown a willingness to adjust. While some players are resistant to mess with their mechanics, Price welcomed such changes. He didn't see it as changing his identity. He simply saw it as a normal part of a pitcher's maturation.
"Sometimes I just make changes on the fly," Price said. "This game is constantly evolving and if you don't evolve with it, it will leave you in the dust pretty quick. I just want to be able to make sure keep hitters on their toes and keep switching up what I'm doing...I make changes pretty often, whether it's big or small. I make changes in between innings. I can't give away all my secrets, but I make a lot of changes."
When Price was called up from the minors in 2008 for a bullpen role, he was essentially a fastball and slider pitcher. As a full-time starter the next couple of seasons, Price added a fastball with some sinking movement. He also began to experiment with a curveball and a change up.
After tweaking his delivery in 2012, Price's use of his curveball and change up has gone up significantly and he's completely ditched his slider.
"I'm a different pitcher now than I was two years ago," Price said. "I just have command of all my stuff. I feel like in 2012 I was, not necessarily a two-pitch pitcher, but a two-and-a-half pitch pitcher. Change up would come and go. Curve ball would come and go. Now I consider myself a four pitch pitcher. I throw a strike with whatever pitch I want right now. It helps. Makes it a lot easier."
The question of course is whether Price will stay in Tampa for the rest of the season. While he doesn't like to talk about the subject, a trade is still certainly possible. Though their current winning ways have momentarily quelled talks of a lost season, the Rays began Monday with only a 41-50 record. They still have a long way to go before winning the division is a realistic possibility.
Any type of losing streak would once again send them tumbling in the standings. They have very little margin for error. Before heading to the All-Star break, the Rays play the Royals and the Blue Jays, two teams with winning records, at home in two series that will be critical in how they view the trade deadline.
Prior to the start of their just-finished road trip, the Rays conducted what Maddon called "Spring Training in June." The aim was for the team to improve its fundamentals. While not perfect, Maddon said the Rays have become less sloppy in regards to baserunning and situational hitting.
"I have said it all along, and I tend to say things, I have have felt that we are absolutely going to get back into this thing," Maddon said. "But you have to go ahead and do it. We're still not there yet. But it's getting better."
Maddon said the Rays only need to concern themselves with winning series.
"I believe the way this division is working right now, it's just by sticking with those short term goals, we can definitely find ourselves back in the hunt," he said.
Yet even during their surge, reports surfaced that Rays management were still in the middle of trade talks. Prior to having landed Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, the A's reportedly were having talks with Tampa about Price.
So while the Rays have managed to change the conversation about their season, it still may ultimately come back to the one topic that Price doesn't like to talk about.