CHICAGO — They gathered inside the clubhouse the day after the trade, the day after David Price, the best pitcher they ever played with and best teammate they ever had, was shipped to Detroit, leaving them, the remainder of the Rays rotation, leaderless.
Or so it was thought.
That’s how it works in Tampa Bay since the franchise turned the corner in 2008 with a pitching staff that serves as the heartbeat of the team.
The Rays did it with pitching and defense, and both are significantly better when the members of the rotation are on their game.
That rotation took its cue first from James Shields and then Price, both strong-willed, dominant personalities. Shields, the bulldog who worked and worked and worked to make himself one of the game’s better pitchers, and Price, the gifted lefty who worked and worked and worked to develop a major-league change-up and the pinpoint control that earned him a Cy Young Award and the promise of a future too rich for the Rays to afford.
Both are gone now.
Here’s what: It’s business as usual for Jeremy Hellickson, Alex Cobb, Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi. They welcomed Drew Smyly, who came from the Tigers in the Price deal, and they root on Matt Moore, who’s working to come back from season-ending elbow surgery as if Shields and Price never left.
“We were bred to carry on their approach,” Cobb said.
They talked about this very topic the day after the trade, Hellickson, Cobb, Archer, Odorizzi and Moore. The staff always had that alpha starter. They heard stories of Shields and his work ethic when they were in the low rungs of the organization. They experienced it in person when they finally reached the big club.
Price was the older brother who looked after them and urged them on from the top step of the dugout.
“We’ve talked about all the talk about who is supposed to be the leader, and we’ve come to determine we don’t need that one guy,” Cobb said. “We as a group will hold each other accountable. Look at it this way: You have four or five friends who see each other as equals, and one guy comes up and says, ‘I’m going to be the leader,’ when yesterday we were the same. It would never work.”
Said Archer: “It would be completely unnatural if Helly or Cobb stood up on a chair and said, ‘I’m the leader now.’ ”
Pitching coach Jim Hickey remembers watching Shields rise to that role, watched how the rest of the pitchers responded to Shields. Hickey said Shields became the captain of the staff long before he realized he was the captain of the staff.
“I’m certainly not holding leadership tryouts, or looking to see who it might be,” Hickey said. “It’s going to be natural. It’s going to be a natural progression or an evolution.”
Some assume the role is there for Cobb to take, based on his tendency to be outspoken and his performance in October in the AL wild-card game. Archer has the security of the long-term deal, so he has the comfort of knowing he will be around for a while. Hellickson has the most service time at the big-league level.
“I definitely have to perform a little bit better to call myself a leader,” Hellickson said.
The legacy of Shields and Price, aside from helping to pitch the franchise out of the dark ages, can be found in the rest of the rotation. They are hard-working, talented pitchers who know they have much more to learn. Perhaps their most important trait is they hold themselves accountable.
Shields provided direction when no one else on the staff could. Price provided the behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to be a dominant pitcher at this level.
The Rays rotation might lack for the one big name, but everything else is in place to continue down the path blazed by Shields and Price.
“As a whole, we’re strong enough to not necessarily say there needs to be one guy,” Archer said. “The leadership role on the Rays pitching staff is different than some people assume. It’s not like you walk around with a crown on your head and you’re that guy. We’re all open and all willing to learn from each other. As opposed to looking up, we’re looking eye-to-eye. We’re together.”