On Oct. 1, 2006, in the bottom of the 11th inning on the final day of the regular season, an off-target throw by Kansas City right fielder Mitch Maier was headed toward the Tigers' third-base dugout at Comerica Park. If the ball had gotten to the dugout, the winning run would have scored.
If that winning run had scored, Kansas City would have tied for the worst record in the majors, and thus would have held the tie-breaker for the first pick in the next year's draft, and likely would have selected left-hander David Price out of Vanderbilt.
Instead, on that day eight years ago, Royals pitcher Joe Nelson backed up third and made a diving stop in foul ground to keep the runner at third.
After Nelson made that diving stop, the Royals won the game an inning later--and because they won the game, Tampa Bay and not Kansas City got the top pick and took Price, clearly the best player in that year's draft. And so because that throw from Maier didn't reach the Tigers' dugout eight years ago, Price reached that dugout on Saturday.
"I'm excited to be here," he said. On his first day in a Tigers uniform, he was meeting on the bench with the media after throwing a bullpen session in which he said his "knees were knocking" because of his excitement of being with the Tigers.
Whether he was kidding -- he gave no indication he was -- he made clear that he realizes he's gone from a team with a small-market payroll to a big-market payroll.
"Awesome," he said of being seen as a final piece of the Tigers' puzzle. "They have a one-track mind -- winning the World Series."
Manager Brad Ausmus said Price will make his first start for the Tigers on Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium. His first home start is lined up for the weekend after next against Seattle and Austin Jackson. (Price, who wore No. 14 in Tampa Bay, slides into Jackson's vacated No. 14 with the Tigers.)
Tampa Bay traded Price to the Tigers because it knew it couldn't re-sign him when he became a free agent after next season. If Kansas City had drafted Price, and if he still were with the Royals this season, it's highly unlikely they would have traded him just now to the Tigers, the team they are trying to catch in the AL Central.
With the second-place Royals four games back of the Tigers Central entering Saturday, it is premature to assume the Tigers will be in the postseason. But seeing Price in their uniform, completing perhaps the most overwhelming five-man rotation anywhere in years, it is unavoidable to think about October.
"That is always the objective," Price said of the World Series. "When you are on a team like this that is what you expect. The first goal is to get in the postseason and keep advancing. I'm excited to be here. To get back to the World Series would be pretty special, and to go on and win one would be kind of crazy."
As a rookie pressed into the closer's role, Price got the final out in Game 7 of the AL championship series in 2008 to put Tampa Bay into its only World Series. The Rays lost in five games to Philadelphia.
Price leads the AL this season in innings pitched, has thrown two nine-inning complete games and has gotten at least one out in the ninth inning in three others, including his victory at Comerica Park four weeks ago. He traces going deep in the games to "commanding the strike zone" better than he ever has. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is a spectacular 8.2, by far the best of his career.
"I want to get a guy out in three pitches or less," he said. With that objective, he keeps his pitch count low and can reach the late innings. He's gone at least seven innings in each of his last 13 starts.
Price, who turns 29 later this month, was asked about the pressure on him to be a difference-maker for the Tigers.
"It does add a little bit of pressure," Price said. "In Tampa, I was looked at as the difference-maker and the leader of the staff. This staff, there are five leaders with the way we've thrown the baseball. If (Rick) Porcello is our five"--fifth starter--"that is pretty remarkable, the way he's thrown the ball this year as well. But I don't add any extra pressure. I want to have fun on the field."
It remains to be seen how hard the Tigers will try to sign Price to a long-term deal this off-season and keep him from free agency after the 2015 season. The decision of where he'll spend the next several years after next year seemed far from Price's mind Saturday.
"I try to focus on the 'now,' " he said. "When you focus on six months or 18 months from now, that means you're not focusing on what you're trying to do right now."
He thus fits the club spirit, in which there are no pages on the current calendar beyond October. With Max Scherzer, Torii Hunter and Victor Martinez in the final year of their contracts, next year is perhaps farther away for the Tigers than for any other big-league team. Jackson and Drew Smyly, among the team's younger players, were traded for Price. As they said of George Allen's Washington Redskins, the future is now.
Before the subject of next year and beyond came up, there were several questions about Price's dog, Astro, a five-year-old French Bulldog. Nobody asked why his dog has the name that identifies as a player on the team perhaps further from the World Series than any other.
But Price also noted a connection to the Tigers -- he said he used the Old English D when he wrote in cursive in elementary school. With him penciled into the formidable rotation, the Tigers as a World Series candidate are much more than a write-in.
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