David Price impresses in loss to Astros, but key pitching questions remain

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A year ago at this time, David Price was on the disabled list, still more than a week away from making his first appearance following eight weeks of inaction because of inflammation in his left elbow. He did return, albeit in a limited role, pitching in five games down the stretch in relief without a run allowed and then throwing 6 2/3 scoreless innings out of the Red Sox bullpen in the four-game AL Division Series loss to the Astros.

It had been a difficult season for the left-hander, with the first lengthy DL stint of his career and an ugly confrontation with Red Sox broadcaster Dennis Eckersley during a team flight. The first-round flameout, even to a better Houston team, put a final scar on the season.

Price entered 2018 in the fourth year of a potential seven-year contract (he has an opt-out clause after this season that he’s unlikely to exercise) with a lot to prove.8

He’s shown he’s still one of the top left-handers in the league, and he proved in Friday night’s showdown against the Astros at Fenway that his recent DL stint — he left a game in late August after getting hit by a line drive — wasn’t a cause for concern. While the Astros ultimately pulled out the 6-3 victory against Joe Kelly, Price had Houston guessing all night. He retired 14 in a row at one point, struck out 10 in 6 1/3 innings — seven looking — and took a shutout into the seventh inning.

“It was good to see,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. “We’ve been talking about [Chris] Sale and Price and rest and all this and all that, but you’re never 100 percent sure if that’s the right way to do it. Obviously, with [Price], he got hit. Even though he was ready a few days ago, you still hold your breath.”

With a big lead in the AL East, the Red Sox can afford to be cautious with the starting pitchers. Sale has pitched just once since July 27, an Aug. 12 start in which he fanned 12 in five innings and hit 100 mph, but then landed back on the DL with inflammation in his left shoulder. He won’t start in this series against the Astros, but he should start early next week. Price, likewise, probably wouldn’t have gone on the DL if the Red Sox were neck-and-neck with the Yankees instead of nursing a nine-game lead.

More than anything, this game revealed the importance of Price to the Red Sox winning it all. The Astros exposed the leaky middle relief of the Boston bullpen, rallying against Ryan Brasier in the seventh to take a 3-2 lead after Price departed with two runners on, and then with three runs off Kelly in the eighth to take a 6-3 lead. Cora then delivered the news after the game that Matt Barnes, the team’s most reliable setup guy most of the season, was unavailable with inflammation in his left hip and had an MRI on Thursday.