PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- David Price pitches like he's playing video games and has all the cheat codes.
He's that good.
The angular left-hander dominates Major League hitters like only a handful of pitchers in the game can. Excellence has been his mantra since he reached The Show for good in 2009. Not only is Price a gifted athlete who has labored to develop his craft, he's a true No. 1 starter, he's won a Cy Young Award (2012) and also has finished second for the coveted pitching honor ('10). He'll likely add more "Cy's" before completing a career on track for Cooperstown.
Given who Price is and who he can be, 2013 wasn't his cup of tea.
After going 1-4 with a 5.24 ERA in his first nine starts, Price went on the disabled list with a triceps strain that caused him to miss 44 games. The lefty returned strong and finished at 10-8 with a 3.33 ERA and four complete games. While those are strong numbers for most, they did not measure up to the high bar he had established. On top of that, the Rays' ace thought 2013 would be his last season with the team. But he weathered the offseason storm of rumors about where he might end up, only to return right back where he started, with the Rays.
"I think there were some reasons why [what happened in 2013] occurred that way," said Rays manager Joe Maddon, noting that Price had to deal with Cy Young obligations as well as thoughts of getting traded. "So there's a lot of residual angst working right there."
Price is a details-oriented guy, and he's smart. So when looking at 2013 in the rearview mirror, he realized one thing he did not do the previous offseason was going through his usual regimen at Vanderbilt University, the school he attended before the Rays selected him with the top pick of the 2007 First-Year Player Draft. Instead, he found himself on the road a lot trying to work out the best he could while he fulfilled his obligations as a well-decorated Major Leaguer.
"I wasn't concerned about it, but that doesn't mean I didn't get on him," said Vanderbilt baseball coach Tim Corbin, who remains a father figure to most of the 20 to 25 former players who work out at the school in the offseason. "I'd say to him, 'Where the heck are you? You need to be here.' Even though I knew he couldn't be here, that didn't stop me from getting inside of him, letting him know this is where he should be."
Corbin believes in the value of the offseason experience at Vanderbilt, which goes to the heart of what Price was missing out on prior to 2013.
"This is just an extension of their life," Corbin said. "And while they're in their professional life, this gives them a domain they can come back to and work out. So it adds to their routine. It keeps their routine. I think for a young man, young person, who is out of college, there's that area of time, some instability where you don't know where to go. You don't know whether to go home or to the site you work out at. It keeps them grounded, because they hold each other to a certain standard."
Despite missing the full Vanderbilt experience prior to the 2013 season, Corbin felt like Price handled his situation well, because "there were a lot of people pulling him."
Of course, Price figured out the obvious by jumping back in with both feet this past offseason to be with his Vanderbilt family. And this year, Price let Corbin know he was watching.
"When I went home for Christmas, David was sending me photos of them working out and saying, 'Where are you?'" Corbin said. "And he knew where I was, but he just wanted me to know they were out taking care of the facilities while I was gone."
Price allowed that his offseason went a lot smoother than his disjointed previous one.
"I wasn't doing nearly any of the things I was doing last offseason," Price said. "So it was a lot easier for me. Last year that was all on me. I'd never really been in that position before, and now I have. I understand what everybody talks about after you win an award like [the Cy Young], the offseason, everything they have going on for you. It's tough to get your normal routine down. Hopefully I can get back to that point again and improve on that next year."
Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey believes Price arrived to camp "a little more determined" this season.
"He isn't going to let what happened last year happen, for sure," Hickey said. "You can just tell a little bit of a difference in the attitude and the way he's just bouncing around out there. I think for him, it was just a huge relief to see that he's still a part of the team, to see what we've done with the team. And that we are putting a team together that can win and he can be a part of it."
Manager Joe Maddon believes Price is entering "that era of five or six years of the best pitching" of his career.
"Even if he doesn't throw as hard as he used to, although he'll show that, the ability to pitch and know what to do, I think is going to permit him with his competitiveness, over the next five years, to be as good as he can be," Maddon said. "He repeats his delivery and his bottom half is so good, that's where his command comes from. He continues to understand himself better. This next window of five years can be pretty spectacular."
Clearly, Price's numbers weren't as good in 2013 as they were the previous season, but he did manage to learn a valuable lesson.
"Throw strikes, use your defense," said Price, who only walked 13 batters in 131 2/3 innings following his return from the disabled list last season. "That's something I've always talked about. But last year, that's what really happened. If you can pound that strike zone, get those hitters in swing mode, just use your defense. I used to want to strike everyone out. Now I'm OK with striking out four, five, six guys and going seven or eight innings. I'm cool with that."
In addition to a lesson learned about pitching, Price also seems to be embracing the philosophy in camp to not let the pressure of playing the game exceed the enjoyment.
"I enjoy everything about this game," Price said. "I love being out here with all of these guys. This is my dream come true. If I can be blessed to be able to come out here for my job, I really have no complaints. I'm definitely very happy to be here, and I really didn't think I was going to be here at this point last year. I'm just excited to be here. So I don't think there is anything for me to be unhappy about."