Is tonight’s game a “must-win” for the Red Sox? No. A lot of teams have gone down 2-0 before and have come back to win a seven game series. But given how the ball flies out of Minute Maid Park, Boston does not want to head for three games in Houston needing to win four out of five to stay alive in the postseason. And no matter where you’re heading for the middle three, a team does not want to drop both home games to open a series. So yes, there is pressure on Boston tonight, even if it’s not must-win pressure.
And most of that pressure falls on the shoulders of David Price.
Astros vs. Red Sox
Ballpark: Fenway Park
Time: 7:09 PM Eastern
Pitchers: Gerrit Cole vs. David Price
Price took the only loss for the Red Sox in the ALDS, giving up two homers, walking two and allowing three runs in an inning and two-thirds against the Yankees. In doing so his career postseason record moved to — all together now — 0-9 with a 6.03 ERA in 10 starts, becoming the first pitcher in history to not have a postseason victory as a starter after starting that many games (Price has two wins in the postseason as a reliever). If you watch the pregame show and listen to the TBS broadcast tonight I suspect you’ll hear that fact quoted to you 50 times.
On the one hand it’s overplayed. At this point everyone is aware of how small sample sizes work in baseball and how if you pick out one of a countless number of potential splits for a ballplayer, it stands a good chance of being unrepresentative. Those ten postseason starts stick out, but against nearly 300 total starts in which he’s won 143 games and posted a career ERA+ of 122, it’s insignificant from an analysis perspective. Price has been bad in the postseason, yes, but that does not make him a bad pitcher and, given what he has shown at all other times, it’s not analytically sound to say that he stands a poor chance to do well in the postseason in the future.
On the other hand: he’s David Price, and David Price has a bit of a track record of letting things get into his head.
Last year he got into an expletive-filled spat with the media— a day after he said he would no longer be talking to the media — and the account of that altercation strongly suggested it was about Price reading things people said about him and getting really, really, really mad. Like over-the-top, yelling and dropping F-bombs mad. He also berated Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley during a charter flight last year in response to something critical Eckersley said about Price during an NESN broadcast.
It’s OK to get mad sometimes, but it’s not super common for players to get angry-outburst mad like Price has, especially over mere — and not unfair — media criticism. This is was not some talk radio goon calling Price a “punk” or insulting him personally or something. It was two well-respected media members, one of which is himself a Hall of Fame pitcher, commenting on Price’s performance and behavior as a pitcher. And Price lost it.
Both of these incidents took place at around the same time and he has not had similar outbursts that we know of. Still, it shows that Price is keenly aware of what is said about him and that, even if he has handled himself better in the past year, it’s very likely he’s still reading and being affected by such stuff. Which is to say that I doubt there is any way on Earth he is doing what most athletes say they do and is putting it all out of his mind and just focusing on his game. He is either thinking specifically about whether or not he has some post-season choke tendencies and/or he is angry that anyone is suggesting he does.
Again: I don’t think that means Price will pitch poorly tonight. As I said above, he has been one of the best pitchers in baseball over the past 11 seasons and was a well above average starter in 2018. Alex Cora would not hand him the ball tonight if he doubted Price could do the job and, in fact, Price could come out tonight and dominate.
But if any pitcher in this postseason is going to feel the moment, it’s Price. To deny at least the possibility of the moment affecting him negatively would be to put one’s head in the sand.
Mr. Price, get ready for your closeup. It comes just after 7PM tonight.