Blue Jays pitcher Price already winning hearts

TORONTO – Only 17 months ago the Blue Jays were having clandestine meetings and talking behind closed doors about removing bits of committed cash from five piles and putting it into a larger one.

With cash spent and none on the horizon from Rogers Communications, an elaborate plan was devised where Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes, R.A. Dickey, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion would restructure their contracts so the Jays could pay free agent Ervin Santana $14 million. Santana signed with the Atlanta Braves last spring.

On a beautiful Simcoe Day holiday Monday — in memory of Lord John Graves Simcoe, first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada — Santana wore a Minnesota Twins uniform to oppose the new-look Jays, with five-time all-stars David Price on the mound and Troy Tulowitzki at short.

Price pitched as if he was born to wear a Jays uniform — for at least seven more starts — as he worked an impressive eight innings and Tulowitzki, or ‘Tulo-HITS-ki’ as one sign read, singled twice, scored twice and ranged into shallow centre securing the first out of Price’s bases-loaded jam in the fourth.

Buehrle, Dickey, Bautista and Encarnacion were all asked after Monday’s win if they had been asked to chip in last month — as they had been during the ‘Let’s Take Up a Collection for Ervin’ campaign last spring. All said no.

Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos, with approval of Guy Lawrence and Tony Staffieri, the Rogers decision makers, added five years of Tulowitzki for $51.2 million for two years of Reyes, picked up the remaining $7.3 million on Price’s deal, added relievers LaTroy Hawkins and Mark Lowe and outfielder Ben Revere, with the Philadelphia Phillies contributing.

“We spent behind the plate too,” said Encarnacion in reference to free-agent Russell Martin’s five-year $82-million deal. “They have a lot of money.

“Last year Ervin wanted to pitch in Atlanta, the Braves moved quickly.”

When Kris Medlen had a season-ending elbow injury, the Braves signed Santana, who this off-season signed a four-year $55 million deal with Minnesota which brought us to Monday and the almost Jay facing Price, the new Jay.

“You read the names, they’re tantalizing, you wonder if you dreaming?” said Dickey. “Then, they get here, you get to see them … reality sets in.”

Price was the real deal. Cheered from 13 minutes after noon when he came out of the third-base dugout heading to the bullpen, accepting good luck wishes and exchanging knuckles with an usher, and more cheers when he jogged along the warning track in left centre.

Price was in a jam, tied 1-1 in the fourth with the bases loaded on a double and two walks.

“I don’t have the stuff to get out of a jam like that,” said Buehrle at his self-deprecating best. “I usually just give up a bases-clearing, double and start fresh with a man on second.”

After Tulowitzki tracked down Eddie Rosario’s pop, Price fanned Aaron Hicks — 45,766 applauding in anticipation when he reached two strikes — and Kurt Suzuki as Price pumped his fist three times and walked off to an ovation.

His 97 mph fastball to Suzuki was his 75th pitch of the day and pitching coach Pete Walker said later the Jays thought it might be a six-inning afternoon for Price.

A funny thing happened from then on as Price worked eight innings. After the 30-pitch fourth, he needed 12 pitches in fifth, nine in both the sixth and seventh and 13 in the eighth. His 119-pitch outing was the most he had thrown this season — he had one extra day of rest — and the most since June 20, 2014 when he pitched a complete-game, 120 pitch 5-1 win for the Tampa Bay Rays over the Pittsburgh Pirates.

“He started to command the change up more,” Dickey said.

Walker agreed after accepting the customary “congrats you finally straightened out that guy” lines.

“We had talked about his change, how he used it 22% of the time (in 2014) most ever,” Walker said. “He has that ability to go to it when he needs to conserve pitches.”

Catcher Russell Martin flashed the sign for five straight changeups to begin the fifth. The result was two quick outs as Eduardo Escobar and lead-off man Brian Dozier both bounced to Josh Donaldson, whose every at-bat is greeted with “MVP! MVP!” chants.

We’ve seen pitchers expend so much energy to escape jam unscathed, some describe it “like pitching two innings,” then walk the park. Price was more dominant after his 30-pitch fourth.

He threw 58 pitches 48 for strikes to get the final 15 outs. In the sixth and seventh he threw only one ball in each nine-pitch inning.

His 11 strikeouts were the most by any of the 174 starters who have debuted for the Jays, except for Jose Nunez who also threw that many in 1987.

Price, drafted first overall in North America from the Vanderbilt University Commodores by the Rays in 2007, and Dickey, a Texas Rangers first round in 1996 from the University of Tennessee Vols, are both represented by agent Bo McKinnis.

Did Dickey help recruit Price for the McKinnis stable?

“No,” said Dickey with a sly smile, “but I plan on being in on the next recruiting session.”

Price is eligible to talk to any big spender after the World Series ends.

The Blue Jays will need all the help that they can get as industry experts expect the price tag for the free agent lefty should surpass both the six years and $155 million the Chicago Cubs gave Jon Lester and the seven-year, $210-million deal the Washington Nationals signed Max Scherzer to.

The love affair between Jays fans and Price began Monday, Encarnacion, Bautista and Dickey should not be asked to chip in next time — if the Rogers decides it has enough to pursue Price.

By: Bob Elliot