DURHAM, N.C. — As David Price stood in front of his locker Saturday night, he couldn’t help but grin and bust jokes with teammates passing by.
His 2009 debut out of the way, the Tampa Bay Rays’ sensational lefty then acknowledged his relief to be onward with the season, confident that even a mixed bag of results in his first meaningful appearance since Game 5 of last year’s World Series will serve as a springboard.
Across the way in the visiting clubhouse, Orioles prized catcher Matt Wieters sat in front of his locker echoing those comments about himself, his night ending in hitless efforts to five trips to the plate, though one was an impressive walk in a 12-pitch battle.
A battle against Price.
“He’s a good hitter,” Price said. “There are going to be days when he goes 2-for-3 off me. He’s going to get his hits and he’s going to his outs. Hopefully there are more in my favor.”
In a much-anticipated matchup pitting Baseball America’s Nos. 1 and 2 prospects, Price and Wieters both served notice Saturday night that their personal one-on-one battles and overall nightly performances should be great box-office draws this season in the Triple-A International League. Or at least before they head on to bigger and better things.
Their first meeting resulted in … drum roll please … an even draw.
Price struck out Wieters on three fastballs in the first inning, and then Wieters in the third exacted a measure of revenge by fouling off a series of fastballs and sliders before drawing a walk.
“For me and David, it was good, to face a quality hitter and a quality pitcher,” Wieters said. “I think you get excited for it but maybe not as much as the media hyped it up to be.”
The Price-Wieters matchup had been anticipated most of the winter and the buzz kicked into overdrive once their respective organizations assigned them to the Durham Bulls and Norfolk Tides, respectively.
But rains throughout North Carolina on Friday forced Bulls officials to bag the season’s second game and try again for a 5:05 p.m. start on Saturday. This time, with only overcast skies and game-time temps in the mid 60s, the show went on.
And what a show it was on a night when the Bulls scored an 8-4 win at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
Mostly, both showdowns offered great detail, as did the two stars’ overall performances.
For Price, who was pulled after 74 pitches in 3 2/3 innings, he showed he was unafraid to challenge Wieters—an imposing, 6-foot-5, 230-pound switch-hitter—but also had trouble getting a feel and consistent release point on his changeup, the pitch the Rays have made a point of emphasis.
For Wieters, who caught all nine innings, Saturday became a mixed bag. Beyond his matchup against Price, he committed a throwing error trying to nail a basestealer swiping second—the middle infielders were late covering—and also struck out with the bases loaded in a 4-3 game in the seventh. He also bobbled a short hop on a throw from right field, with the runner safe at the plate.
More on all that later. First, the two head-to-head battles, in reverse order, with special homage to the most intense:
— Clearly locking in and refusing to budge, Wieters stood his ground in an at-bat in which Price offered a smorgasbord of pitches as he ran in his changeup, slider and fastball. As Wieters batted right hoping to gain the advantage as Price ran his fastballs in toward him, this was the breakdown (compliments of Ben Badler’s earlier and just-as-intense blog post):
CH 85, foul
SL 83, b, high
FB 92, b, away
SL 85, foul
FB 90, foul
CH 84, foul
FB 93, b, high and away
FB 94, foul
FB, foul (96)
SL 87, inside, ball four
“It’s one AB I can look back on and take a positive from,” Wieters said. “I was just swinging at better pitches.”
Said Price, particularly in leading off with a changeup, “I wished he would have grounded out to third base and saved me 11 pitches there.”
Price said he offered the 3-2 slider on the 12th pitch hoping it would stay in the zone just long enough before catching the bottom of Wieters’ bat.
“I just couldn’t get out on my release point with it,” Price said.
— In the first inning, Price went after Wieters, again batting right. The at-bat ended almost as soon as it began. In came a 92 mph fastball that Wieters took for strike one, and then came a 93 mph fastball (somewhat away) that Wieters poked at but missed. The next came right down main street for a called third strike.
“It was a good sequence,” Price said. “He could have been expecting a lot of different things (on 0-2). He’s got to put the ball in play. And for me it was about making a good pitch. After that I was thinking about how I was going to set him up. But I was planning on executing that pitch (the fastball) right there.”
Said Wieters, “I tried to guess with him in that first at-bat. He out-thought me. And if you guess on him, you are going to be in trouble.”
They wouldn’t get another chance to face each other, however.
Because the Rays have issued an edict to the Bulls not to allow Price to exceed 75 pitches or five innings, whichever comes first, Price got the hook after striking out Donnie Murphy, the second batter of the fourth.
His final line was 3 2/3 innings, four strikeouts, two walks, four hits and two runs—with the runs coming on Nolan Reimold’s blast well over the wall in the left-center power alley. The shot rocketed out, not needing an arch to barely clear the fence.
It was notable that the home run came on a fastball, one pitch after Price delivered an erratic curve that stayed high and outside.
“I thought he was just OK,” Durham pitching coach Xavier Hernandez said. “I thought he threw some pretty decent sliders. He didn’t really command the strike zone with his fastball as well as he can. But that’s why he’s learning in Triple-A.
“He has to work on delivering the changeup and getting better definition of the slider. We saw some positive results. The slider had a little more depth in the second and third innings.”
The changeup, Hernandez said, will come with time once Price gains confidence in it. Price concurs.
“For me, he’s not trusting his changeup. In the bullpen, he’s fine. Out between the white lines, he’s just carrying it a little. That’s going to come with experience. He doesn’t have the arm whip that he should with it. Sometimes it seems he wants to watch it, so he doesn’t follow through. That’s pretty common with young pitchers throwing a new pitch.”
Said Price, “It wasn’t there today. All spring training, it has been a good pitch for me. It’s something I just need to trust. With repetitions, it’ll come.”
Meanwhile, Wieters is looking ahead, too, as he eagerly anticipates learning more about the nuances of calling games and working with a pitching staff. In his Georgia Tech days, the coaching staff called pitches from the dugout.
Offensively, he’s 0-for-7 in the young season.
“I feel good at the plate,” Wieters said. “Right now, it’s a matter of pitch selection.”
He is working with Norfolk hitting coach Dallas Williams.
“I think he’s a little bit in a rush to get his feet wet up here. He’s jumping at pitches,” Williams said. “But I’m not concerned with him. He’ll be fine.”
The 12-pitch battle, in essence, told him so.
“That’s what I expect to see from him once he gets going. He took some good swings,” said Williams, noting the days between the end of spring training and Opening Day, then a rainout on Friday, has compounded hitters’ timing. “We’re trying to keep his hands through the ball. Mechanically, there’s not much you need to do with a guy like that.
“Obviously he’s chased some balls out of the strike zone. But we’re going to stay patient with this kid.”