In some fashion, when Detroit Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski traded for David Price, he was making a bold statement: This is the year. Playoffs in 2011, World Series in 2012, one Joaquin Benoit pitch from maybe going back to the World Series in 2013. But no championship.
In dealing Drew Smyly and Austin Jackson to acquire Price at the July 31 trade deadline, Dombrowski put two valuable chips on the table. He acquired a second ace to go alongside Max Scherzer, knowing Scherzer is almost certain to depart as a free agent after the season. Designated hitter Victor Martinez, having a career season at the age of 35, is also a free agent. Miguel Cabrera is on the back side of his prime years. Ian Kinsler is 32. Torii Hunter is 38 and also a free agent. Justin Verlander hasn't been good this year and there are legitimate concerns that his top-of-the-rotation days are in the past.
In other words, it's possible the Tigers won't be this good again in 2015 or 2016 or 2017, so ... this has to be the year.
That's what was so disappointing about Price's performance Wednesday night. A day after the Tigers suffered a tough, walk-off loss to the Twins, they staked Price to a 2-0 lead in the top of the first, and he promptly coughed up three runs in the bottom of the inning as five of the first six batters reached base. Normally a strike-throwing machine, Price fell behind with ball one on four of those six batters. The first two hits came on 1-0 fastballs. He walked Joe Mauer. After a strikeout, Trevor Plouffe hit a 1-1 changeup for a soft liner to center and Kurt Suzuki lined a 2-1 changeup down the left-field line for an RBI double. Give credit to the Twins for some nice at-bats. All the hits came on pitches down in the zone; Price just wasn't fooling anybody.
Even after the Tigers regained the lead, Price struggled. The Twins finally knocked him out after tying it up 4-4 in the sixth -- Price lasted 5 2/3 innings but threw 112 pitches. Price leads the majors in total pitches on the season, but he also leads in innings. Usually when he throws 112 pitches he's gone eight innings, something he's done 16 times this year, most in the majors. Not on this night, on a night the Kansas City Royals would inch closer to the Tigers with a big win over American League ERA leader Chris Sale.
But Price has been very hittable over his past five starts, allowing 45 hits in 31 innings. Yes, there was the infamous game against the Yankees where he allowed 12 hits in two innings, but he allowed eight, nine, eight and eight base hits in his next four turns.
That's sort of the tradeoff Price has made the past couple years: Cut down on the walks by pounding the strike zone with fastballs, but sometimes at the expense of allowing more hits. Only four pitchers have allowed more extra-base hits this year, and Price's 25 home runs allowed are fifth-most behind Marco Estrada, Hector Noesi, Eric Stults and Dan Haren -- not four pitchers you usually see mentioned in the same category as Price.
When Al Alburquerque relieved Price and allowed a go-ahead triple, it plated Price's fifth run of the night. The Twins went on to an 8-4 victory, with Price picking up the loss and dropping to 3-4 with a 4.09 ERA in nine starts with the Tigers.
The Tigers are still in first place, a half-game ahead of the Royals (or one game, assuming the Royals lose the suspended game against the Indians that they trail 4-2 in the 10th inning). That sets the stage for this weekend's big showdown in Kansas City, a three-game set after both teams take a day off on Thursday.
The Tigers have a chance to put the Royals away. Will they? Will this be the year?