NEW YORK - The Rays were on a nice run when they arrived at Minute Maid Park on July 2, having stopped the Blue Jays' 11-game winning streak and stared down the Tigers during the recent homestand. The night before they rolled over the Astros, 12-0, for their fifth win in seven games. Remember the date: July 2. That's when David Price returned from the disabled list and pitched like it was 2012. And the Rays took off, winning 17 of their next 20.
The rotation fell into this groove that carried them up the standings. All season the defense has been better than solid and the offense better than expected. But this Rays team, like all other Rays teams, runs on pitching, and the starting pitching has been on quite a run this month. "I think it stems back from David's first start off the DL in Houston," Matt Moore said. "It just seems like we started eating different cereal or something, I don't know." You expected a lift last season when Evan Longoria returned from the disabled list. You knew he would settle the infield defense, and you knew his bat would pump some life into a lifeless offense. Everyday players can do that to a team. Heck, look at the jolt Wil Myers has provided. But a starting pitcher? "Absolutely," Luke Scott said. "Anytime you can put a Cy Young Award winner on the mound, you like your chances." But that's one start, one game in five. What about the other four games? "We all feed off each other," Jeremy Hellickson said. Yes, the Rays' starters are a competitive bunch. One guy throws a complete game, the next guy wants to throw a complete game. Price, like James Shields before him, sets the competitive bar. "He's just looked really focused, really determined to go out there and have a great performance every night, and it's hard not to feed off of it," Longoria said. "It's hard for the other (pitchers) to not want to go out there and repeat what he's doing and repeat that mind set." Price is 4-1 with a 1.76 ERA and three complete games in his five starts since returning from a strained left triceps. "Speaking from my own perspective, when he goes out there, you feel like you want to perform for him, because you know he's put his heart and soul into his outing and you don't want to disappoint him," Longoria said. "That's a good thing to feel. That's a good thought to have, not only when he goes out there but when every subsequent pitcher on our staff goes out there, you want to succeed for them and pull for them to succeed." Price's presence also makes the rotation deeper, allowing for more favorable matchups with the opposing team's starter for Moore, Hellickson, Chris Archer and Roberto Hernandez. Moore, Hellickson and Archer are undefeated since Price's return, though that run began on June 19. The Rays are 2-4 when Hernandez has pitched during this run, but they've also scored a total of five runs during those losses. Longoria said it's more than just the numbers. Price's positive, kid-at-heart nature is infectious. "I think he's so much more valuable than anybody really could imagine as a teammate in the dugout when he's not pitching, just pulling for other guys, talking with other guys," Longoria said. "That's the thing that we miss when guys go on the DL, you miss their presence in the clubhouse on the road. You miss what they can bring to the team from a non-performance standpoint, and I think he's the bigger cheerleader we have. He's one of the best cheerleaders we have. "He really pulls for everyone when he's not playing, so that's more important to me." Manager Joe Maddon said he's encountered a few pitchers over the years who can lift the entire team because of how hard they work, how they compete and because they have the personality that even the position players can't ignore. He mentioned former Angels Jack McDowell and Chuck Finley. "Those pitchers do exist that elevate the entire group," Maddon said. And Price? "I think he is one," Maddon said. For the record, Moore said he used to eat Fruity Pebbles. "I've moved on to Lucky Charms," he said. Of course he has. Seems like they all have. [email protected] (813) 259-7227 Twitter: @RMooneyTBO