ST. PETERSBURG - Suddenly, they're who they need to be. Suddenly, the reigning Cy Young winner is jumping and bumping for joy. "I'm right where I need to be right now," David Price said. Suddenly, the Rays have the best starting pitching in baseball the last two weeks. Last season, it seemed like they had the best starting pitching any two weeks.
Suddenly, they're pounding those who are begging to be pounded, like the Astros, and the lifeless White Sox, who Sunday were swept out of a three-game series behind Price's complete game in a 3-1 win. "That's the way we have to be, to pitch like that," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. Maddon's team has won four in a row, eight of their last nine and 11 of 14. They haven't made up loads of ground on the first-place Red Sox, but they've caught the Yankees and Orioles. More to the point, they're grounded again, with starting pitching in the lead, finally. Leading it all is Price, who has two wins in two starts since coming off the DL. "It feels good. That's the guy that you want to be," he said. Sunday, Price wasn't Koufax-ian, as he was Tuesday in Houston, when he struck out 10 with just 70 pitches in seven shutout innings. But he was impressive just the same. He pounded the zone to toss a complete game on just 98 pitches. Since returning, he has allowed one run in 16 innings, with 15 strikeouts and zero walks. Startling as it sounds, Sunday was Price's first win at Tropicana Field since July 19, 2012, and the first complete game for a Rays pitcher in 2013. This staff has made a turn for the better. It was supposed to be this way. Remember? During the last two weeks, the Rays are 11-3 and their starting pitchers lead the majors with nine wins, 12 quality starts and a 1.96 ERA. It's about time they found a groove. Price most of all. "It means everything, because he's the anchor of the staff," Evan Longoria said. "He's the guy who everybody on the staff looks to. ... When he pitches like he did today, they want to follow suit, they want to have that battle within and pitch better than one another." "From the get-go, we always said it - we're going to go as (far) as the pitchers go," said Rays catcher Jose "None Shall Run" Molina, who is suddenly throwing out runners, two on Sunday alone. Ivan Rodriguez phoned. He wants his arm back. Molina's sac fly, Ben Zobrist's sac fly and a broken-bat RBI single from Sean Rodriguez. Three runs. That's more than Price needed. Suddenly, that's more than enough. The Rays are in the middle of a big fat jelly donut - 14 consecutive games against the Astros, White Sox and Twins, three losers that are a combined 53 games under .500. The Rays went 6-1 last week, a good start. The White Sox came in flat and left flatter. With seven more home games this week, four with Minnesota and three with Houston after that, nothing less than a 5-2 week should be acceptable. That would put the Rays 12 games over .500 at the All-Star break, and that with their Cy Young guy having, at most, four wins. Who wouldn't take that? This is a week made for winning with impunity, hitting the break energized for the second half, which begins with a long AL East road trip to Toronto, Boston and New York. The Rays need to start beating the East. To do that, to amount to anything, really, they need to be about starting pitching, starting with David Price. Suddenly, they are.