Sox can't match Rays' Price

BOSTON -- David Price offered a scary thought Wednesday night: Since returning from a triceps strain that sidelined him for 47 days, he might be pitching better than he did last season.

All he did last season was win 20 games, lead the American League with a 2.56 ERA and win the Cy Young Award.

Better than that?

"Absolutely," the 27-year-old left-hander said after needing just 97 pitches to dispose of the Red Sox 5-1 Wednesday night, drawing the Rays to within a half-game of the first-place Sox in the AL East.

"Last year I felt like I had complete control of two pitches," Price explained. "Right now I honestly feel like I have four pitches I can throw at any time, and they've definitely gotten better."

Since returning from the disabled list July 2, Price has won four of his five starts, three of which have been complete games of fewer than 100 pitches.

"It's just hard to imagine a guy pitching better than he is right now," Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said. "I don't think I've seen it regarding quality of pitches, stuff, location, good-hitting ballclub. He's been on top of his game -- that's an understatement."

The Rays have been on top of their game, as well, going a major league-best 17-3 in July. They've taken two of three from the Sox here after losing nine of their first 12 meetings this season.

"We're playing good baseball and that's the thing I'm most pleased with," Maddon said. "Regardless of what it says on the other jersey, we're playing well."

It isn't just Price. Second-year starter Matt Moore, fresh off a two-hit shutout of the Sox on Monday night, has turned in a Cy Young-caliber season of his own so far, going 14-3 with a 3.17 ERA and 112 strikeouts in 116 1/3 innings. Meanwhile, the team's pitching as a whole has combined to post a tidy 2.31 ERA this month, also tops in the majors.

"We've got a good groove, however long it's been, and it's been fun," Price said. "We feel like we have five guys that can go out there and win at any time."

Teammates concur.

"Price is pitching unbelievable right now, but you've got to give credit to Moore, [Jeremy] Hellickson, [Chris] Archer. They're all pitching really well," Cuban-born shortstop Yunel Escobar said through an interpreter.

The pitching hasn't been alone in carrying this Tampa team within reach of the top. The defense has been stellar, with Escobar making what Maddon called the team's best defensive play of the year in the fourth inning, a behind-the-back throw with his glove to second baseman Ben Zobrist to turn a flashy double play.

Escobar played for Red Sox manager John Farrell in Toronto the past two seasons.

"It's definitely one of the better plays I've ever made," Escobar said. "To help us win, playing Boston, was a great feeling."

The Sox have held first place in the division since May 27. The Rays hope to end that run Thursday night in the series finale.

"It's always nice to be in first place," Maddon said. "It would be significant regarding how we've been able to do something like that. But again, it's about [Thursday's game]."