David Price can’t win. Even if he wins in October.
It’s not fair, but it’s the reality. The Red Sox’ decision to utilize the maligned $31-million-a-year lefthander in a bullpen role heading toward the postseason is intriguing. It may even be the ideal deployment, given that he’s coming off an injury that has prevented him from starting a big-league game since July 22.
Price could be what Tim Lincecum was for the 2012 Giants, or a version of the 2016 Andrew Miller with the Indians — the bullpen stopper who gets crucial high-leverage outs in almost any scenario.
With Craig Kimbrel having a historic season at the back end, Addison Reed setting him up, and Price as a wild card, a season that began with the perception that the bullpen was the team’s weak link may conclude with it being deeper than any in recent memory.
But even if Price thrives in the role and the Red Sox go on a prolonged and memorable postseason run, I suspect not even that will be enough to win over an element of the fan base that seems to work awfully hard to avoid giving him any credit or benefit of the doubt.
Recently, I asked this question of readers on social media and in my daily Sports Q segment: Can David Price win you over with a strong postseason performance?
I presumed the response would be primarily affirmative. The only thing we like nearly as much as parades around here is telling each other what a tough place this is to play. You’ve got to prove it to us. It’s kind of absurd, really, but it makes Boston an awfully rewarding place to play for those who come through.
With a quality postseason performance, I figured, Price would gain some redemption and perhaps even a few dozen more fans. Maybe even a couple hundred.
After all, it has happened before, and recently. John Lackey was something far less than a fan favorite during his first couple of underwhelming-to-disastrous seasons with the Red Sox. Lackey had been a front-of-the-rotation bulldog his entire career before coming to the Red Sox. He won Game 7 of the World Series as a rookie in 2002 for the Angels.
The reason he flopped when he got here is that his right elbow was falling off its hinge. He got surgery, got healthy, and lo and behold, got good again. His personality didn’t change. We didn’t toughen him up. It was a matter of health. And he always seemed to resent that he had to win fans over in 2013.
There’s a difference with Price, of course. Unlike Lackey, he does not have a log of impressive postseason performances to fall back on. He’s 0-8 as a starter in the playoffs, with a 5.74 ERA in nine starts. He’s been hammered by the Red Sox (seven runs in 7 innings of Game 2 of the 2013 ALDS while with the Rays) and hammered while with the Red Sox (3⅓ innings, 5 runs in Game 2 of the 2016 ALDS vs. the Indians).
It’s a jarringly subpar track record for a pitcher of his regular-season accomplishment.
Yet he has had some moments. In the 2008 ALCS, during his first big-league season, he overwhelmed the Red Sox in three relief appearances. In Game 7, he earned a save that included a strikeout of J.D. Drew that was downright overwhelming. Say what you will about Drew, but he rarely looked hopeless at the plate. Price made him look beyond hopeless.
Price does have two relief wins in the postseason, and perhaps he can provide a flashback to his breathtaking arrival nine years ago. His first regular-season relief outing in seven years — an overpowering 21-pitch effort Sunday against the Rays — was encouraging. This is something fans should be excited about.
And yet the response to my question suggested not only that many fans expect him to fail, some actually want him to. A sampling of comments on the piece: “An overly sensitive [expletive] who is not at all likable . . . his poor judgment regarding people and handling situations is directly related to his pitching acumen . . . will choke in the pen . . . I would prefer him causing an early exit from the playoffs if that would get him out of town . . . cancer in the locker room.’’
Now, I understand why some fans wouldn’t like him; his misguided berating of Dennis Eckersley on the team plane was shamefully bad form, a stupid idea poorly executed. I understand why there’s skepticism about him performing in the playoffs.
But I don’t understand why anyone would want him to fail — or for that matter, refuse to acknowledge that he has pitched pretty well here when healthy. He won 17 games last year, led the league in innings pitched with 230, and struck out 228 hitters. As excellent as Drew Pomeranz has been, I’d take that guy as their No. 2 starter right now.
It’s easy to forget, but Price has had his moments this year, putting up a 1.91 ERA in five starts from mid June to mid July — including an eight-inning, no-run gem against the Yankees — before ending up on the disabled list after his last start July 22.
You remember that one. It fueled speculation that Price wasn’t really hurt, but was merely dodging Red Sox fans intent on booing him in the fallout of the Eckersley mess. Two months later, the truth should be obvious: The conspiracy theorists were wrong, and they should be embarrassed.
Sure, there are valid reasons for Red Sox fans to have frustrations with Price. But there are valid reasons for him to be frustrated with you, too. He was hurt, and now he’s coming back to try to aid the cause in an important and yet mostly unfamiliar role. The least Red Sox fans can do is acknowledge a job well done if he delivers, rather than sitting here waiting for him to fail.