Small stumbles can be unforgivable offenses when races are so close.
The slightest advantage this late in the process can be too large to overcome. And if the competition is outpacing everyone else anyway, well then it becomes that man’s race to lose.
That is where David Price sits in the American League Cy Young Award competition this week after another dazzling down-the-stretch performance Monday against the New York Yankees. The Yankees are the team Price’s Toronto Blue Jays are trying to hold off in the AL East title hunt as they attempt to qualify for the postseason for the first time since 1993, when the franchise won its second consecutive World Series.
Against the Yankees, Price threw seven shutout innings, struck out seven and walked one. He allowed just two hits in a dominant performance that was cut short because of the 114 pitches it took him to weave it. He retired the final 14 batters who stepped into the box against him.
In four starts against the Yankees as a Blue Jay, Price allowed five earned runs in 26.1 innings (1.71 ERA) and won the decision in three of the four starts—he is 3-1 versus the Yankees, despite the previous tweet. His overall ERA for the year is now an AL-best 2.34.
Toronto manager John Gibbons told reporters, per Shi Davidi of Sportsnet:
He’s been unbelievable, really. He’s 8-1 since we acquired him, that’s eight big wins, four times he’s faced these guys, the team we’re competing with right now, that’s not easy to do. What can you say really? That was the whole idea behind getting him. Trades don’t always work out right; this one has worked out right. … He’s [at the] top of the game, really.
While Price, who stands to rake in more than $200 million in free agency this offseason, might be at the top of the league’s starting pitcher heap, there are guys at his level or slightly below trying to pull him down.
The main one is Houston Astros ace Dallas Keuchel, who has earned that ace title over his last two seasons and pitched to a 2.51 ERA, 2.90 FIP and 1.023 WHIP this year. He is also 18-8 with a chance to win 20 games, and even though wins as a stat have been mostly discredited in this era, we still celebrate that milestone as a high level of excellence.
It is also possible that Keuchel’s stumble last week will cost him the Cy Young Award. In a start against the Texas Rangers in the Astros’ most critical series of the season, he lasted just 4.2 innings and was torched for nine runs, six of them in the first inning to sink his team before the Rangers even made three outs.
David Price can become only 2nd pitcher to win Cy Young for season in which he was traded, joining Rick Sutcliffe in '84. (h/t STATS LLC)— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) September 22, 2015
Keuchel bounced back nicely against the Los Angeles Angels Monday, throwing 7.2 innings and allowing one run, but Price has had no need for such a redeeming outing since the end of April. That is a long-lost memory by now. In a race this close, how these guys throw in their final handful of starts is going to go a long way in voters’ minds, because, as we know, recent memory matters, as does making the playoffs.
There are other candidates in this race, although most of them sit on the fringes. Oakland’s Sonny Gray, Houston’s Scott Kazmir, Tampa Bay’s Chris Archer and Chicago’s Chris Sale all have reasonable cases for being on the ballot, but none of them have the goods to be ahead of Price or Keuchel.
This is now a two-man fight, and the combination of Keuchel’s slip and Price’s latest on-the-money haymaker put Price at the head of the class, a position he’s coveted since he broke in as a reliever with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008.
"He wanted to be the best," Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey told John Tomase of WEEI.com Tuesday. "He wanted to be the best in the game. He didn't want to be real good. He didn't want to be the best on the team. He wanted to be the best pitcher in the game.”
The number of starts could change depending on when teams clinch and how they want to set up the rotations for the postseason, but as things currently stand, Price and Keuchel will each have two more starts before the end of the regular season. Price throws against the Rays twice, and Keuchel gets the Rangers and Arizona Diamondbacks.
Based on those opponents’ offensive production in the second half, Price has the tougher task to finish his campaign strongly enough to secure the award. If he handles the Rays twice in the span of five games—he’s made just one start against the Rays this season and allowed five runs in six innings in his final start with the Detroit Tigers—it should be enough to lock up the second Cy Young Award of his stellar career.
All quotes, unless otherwise specified, have been acquired firsthand by Anthony Witrado. Follow Anthony on Twitter @awitrado and talk baseball here.