BOSTON -- Two weeks ago, when David Price made his first regular-season relief appearance in seven years, the conditions under which the Boston Red Sox thought they would be able to use him -- at least initially -- read like the instructions that came with Gizmo from "Gremlins."
• Let him know in advance when he will pitch.
• Bring him in only to start an inning.
• Give him four days' rest between outings.
But after last week, it’s clear Price no longer needs to be handled with care. He pitched in three games over a four-day span, including back-to-back appearances Friday and Saturday against the Houston Astros, and retired 12 of 14 batters -- seven via strikeout. His three-pitch whiff of George Springer with the tying runs on base in the seventh inning and the division title in sight Saturday loomed as large as any out recorded by a Red Sox pitcher all season.
Indeed, Price adapted to his new role faster and with greater ease than the Sox expected when they decided last month to put him in the bullpen after a seven-week stay on the disabled list with elbow inflammation. The way in which they deploy him -- "The Price Rules," if you will -- has become considerably more liberal. And as the postseason gets underway, the $217 million lefty might be the biggest asset at manager John Farrell's disposal, the Red Sox's answer to Cleveland Indians relief ace Andrew Miller.
"It's been a challenging year for him, by his own admission," Farrell said of Price, likely referring to Price's off-the-field feuds with the media and his June 30 confrontation on the team plane with broadcaster/Hall of Fame pitcher Dennis Eckersley, in addition to his physical issues. "You know what? He's a talented pitcher, and we're using him at the right time."
And without much restriction.
Price got enough of a heads-up before his first relief appearance Sept. 17 at Tampa Bay that he was able to stretch out his arm by long-tossing with left fielder Andrew Benintendi between innings before loosening in the bullpen. Whenever possible, Farrell still prefers to give Price advance notice of when he's going to pitch.
Also, when Farrell calls down to the bullpen for Price to begin warming up, the plan is always to bring him into the game. The Red Sox have not yet asked Price to warm up and sit down.
Otherwise, there aren't any limitations on Price. The Red Sox gave him four days' rest between his first appearance and a Sept. 22 outing in Cincinnati. He got another four-day breather before his next appearance, but when Farrell brought him in last Wednesday night, it was with two outs and the bases empty in the sixth inning to face a left-handed hitter. Price got Toronto Blue Jays infielder Ryan Goins to ground out, then struck out the side in the seventh inning.
Between each of those appearances, Price told Farrell and the coaching staff that he was ready to pitch whenever they needed him. He said his arm had responded well to the relief work, and the velocity readings backed up that claim. Price's fastball consistently has been clocked in the mid-90s, even touching 97 mph.
And although Farrell had no intention of using Price on Saturday, Price "was adamant," according to Farrell, that he wanted the ball if the game was close in the late innings.
"He does a great job adapting," Farrell said. "The times he's come to the mound, there's no question the power of his stuff. The way he bounces back physically, that's the key to it all. The performance is clear. Just what are the total number of pitches on a given night and what's the recovery time? He's been on the very positive side of the recovery needed."
When the Red Sox moved quickly to put Price in the bullpen, it prompted questions about whether they could have delayed the decision and attempted to stretch him out enough to make a few starts before the end of the season. But considering he also missed the season's first two months with a tear in his left elbow, the practical move was to use him in relief.
Even as the rotation struggled down the stretch, the Red Sox didn't waver in their decision. Price threw 47 pitches in a simulated game Sept. 14 and hasn't thrown more than 40 in any of his relief appearances.
Besides, Price still can be tremendously valuable in high-leverage situations in the sixth and seventh innings. He can take pressure off a fatigued starter and stabilize the bridge to setup man Addison Reed in the eighth inning.
"I think the flexibility or access to more frequent use in spots like [Saturday] could potentially be a greater weapon than one or two [starts] in a five-game series," Farrell said. "To his credit, he has embraced it. He's worked his tail off to get to being at game speed. I'm amazed at how he's rebounding physically. It's great to see, and thankfully he's in the spot he is right now."
Said Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski: "I know he gets scrutinized at times, but he really stepped up for us here down the stretch. I'm glad he's healthy because when you have him healthy, he's one of the best pitchers in baseball."
During spring training, Price acknowledged that pitching well in the playoffs is the only way to win over Red Sox fans. That rings especially true after a season in which his image took another hit after he mocked and berated Eckersley on the team plane for being too critical during broadcasts. Even Red Sox owner John Henry described Price's season as "turbulent."
And sure enough, after Price struck out Springer last Saturday, he walked off the mound to a thunderous ovation. To Henry, it was reminiscent of the big outs recorded by Price against the Red Sox as a rookie in the bullpen for the Tampa Bay Rays in the 2008 playoffs.
"Maybe we'll see that again this year," Henry said. "I think we will."