David Price uniquely suited to handle pressure of being Red Sox's ace

CLEVELAND -- When David Price takes the mound here Monday, it will mark his fourth consecutive Opening Day start for his third different team.

But one thing will remain constant: Two dates -- "08/17/07" and "04/24/08" -- will be embroidered on the outside of Price's glove to memorialize two childhood friends.

"People ask me what these dates are all the time," the Boston Red Sox ace said recently. "I tell them and they're like, 'Oh, I'm so sorry.' It's not for people to feel sorry for me. It's to remember those guys. Any time I get a chance to talk about them and how special they were, that's an opportunity I take."

Looking back, Price can't fathom anything more difficult than mourning the losses of Nathan Stephens and Tyler Morrissey less than a year apart. Compared to that, everything else is utterly trivial, especially the issue of coping with the pressure that comes with being the highest-paid pitcher in baseball history and the proven No. 1 starter the Red Sox have craved since they traded Jon Lester 20 months ago.

Price and Stephens were best friends and teammates on the basketball team at Blackman High School in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. They graduated in 2004, Price heading to Vanderbilt as the top pitching prospect in the country, Stephens going to the University of Tennessee with hopes of becoming a teacher and coach. On Aug. 17, 2007, one day after Price signed his first pro contract with the Tampa Bay Rays, Stephens collapsed while playing a pickup basketball game and died of cardiac arrest. He was 22.

Eight months later, on April 24, 2008, Price was rehabbing a strained left forearm when he got word that Morrissey was killed while riding in the passenger seat in a two-car collision. He was 21.

"It was definitely tough to deal with," Price said. "Nobody has a bad word to say about those guys. They were great sons, they were great brothers and they were great friends. That's what I tell people."

Price, of course, has gone on to be one of the best pitchers in baseball over the past seven years. Among American League starters with at least 400 innings pitched since 2009, he ranks third in ERA (3.10), strikeouts (1,360) and innings pitched (1,427.2) and sixth in ERA-plus (125). In December, the Red Sox signed him to a seven-year contract worth $217 million, topping Clayton Kershaw's $215 million extension with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

That type of investment brings a certain level of expectation. And if Price wasn't already acutely aware of what he represented to Boston, it was made abundantly clear when he arrived at Massachusetts General Hospital to take his physical and got bull-rushed by an overly excited security guard in the parking lot.

"He just came running up, and he was pumped," Price recalled. "Here I am, extremely new to the city, haven't thrown a pitch in a Red Sox uniform, hadn't even had my press conference yet. So, I guess I could've still backed out. I don't know how that works. But just the way he received me at that moment, that was cool."

Price's first start will come Monday against the Cleveland Indians in what has been forecasted as near-freezing temperatures. He's scheduled to face his most recent team, the Toronto Blue Jays, over the weekend at Rogers Centre and could make his first home start at Fenway Park as soon as April 15, also against the Jays.

After years of pitching against the Red Sox in the AL East, Price claims to understand what it means to be their ace. And unlike other recent high-priced free-agent imports who have wilted in Boston (Carl Crawford and Pablo Sandoval, to name two), he seems to be comfortable with the spotlight, even to relish it.

"I think everybody wants to be 'The Guy,'" Price said. "Whatever team it is, you want to be that No. 1. I was talking to Pedro [Martinez] in Montreal [this week], and I was like, 'Man, this is the most relaxed I've been in a long time,' knowing that I'm going to be somewhere for an extended period of time. I can set my roots in and be a part of everything, knowing that I'm going to be here next year. I'm going to be here in two years. To me, that's very special. That's something I definitely want, and it's not something I've had. And to have that now, it's definitely a good feeling."

And when Price makes his Red Sox debut, he will bring with him the memories of Nathan Stephens and Tyler Morrissey. Price doesn't require much more inspiration -- or motivation -- than that.

"I think about them all the time," Price said. "They're still here with me. If I have a daughter, I want her to marry a guy like Nathan or Tyler. I feel like that’s the biggest compliment you could pay somebody, and that’s the way I feel about them."