Rays left-hander David Price has been pitching on another level since returning from the disabled list on July 2. And the key to his success, when he says it, sounds so simple.
"Throwing more strikes," Price said Sunday. "Just having guys put the ball in play before I get to four balls. That's what I've been doing."
Price is 5-1 with a 1.77 ERA and 51 strikeouts in 71 1/3 innings over nine starts since he was sidelined by a left triceps strain. Perhaps the most impressive numbers pertain to Price's control, as he has only walked three of the 258 batters he's faced in that span and only been to 21 three-ball counts.
The reigning American League Cy Young Award winner will look to continue his dominant stretch Monday, when the Rays head to Baltimore for a critical three-game series against the Orioles at Camden Yards.
The O's, who will send Chris Tillman to the mound to face Price, won last year's season series, 10-8, but the Rays hold a 7-5 edge heading into this set. Only 3 1/2 games separate the two in the standings. This is a chance for Tampa Bay to solidify its second-place standing in the AL East and atop the AL Wild Card race.
"They're a team that really kind of redefined themselves last year. They're playing good baseball again this year, so they're going to be in there at the end," said Price, who's undefeated (3-0, 3.20 ERA) in seven starts at Camden Yards. "This is a big series. We're going to go out there on Monday and go for a series win on Tuesday."
It's been reasonable to pencil in a Rays win with Price on the mound lately, as he's arguably pitching better now than he did during his Cy Young campaign. He leads the AL in walks per nine innings (1.21) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (5.88). His last start Wednesday was the first time in his last nine starts that he exited the game with Tampa Bay losing. Even he seemed impressed by his extremely limited walk totals since his DL stint.
"That's good. It is. I can't deny that," Price said. "It's something I've probably never really come close to doing. To be able to control the ball in the zone like that is fun."
Tillman is having an impresive season in his own right, entering Monday's matchup with a 14-3 record and a 3.70 ERA. He couldn't lock down his 15th win his last time out despite posting another quality start. The right-hander allowed two runs in six innings, but didn't factor into the decision against the D-backs on Wednesday.
It was Tillman's second straight strong outing, as he dominated the Giants in San Francisco on Aug. 9, allowing one run on four hits while striking out nine over eight innings.
Rays: Moore plays catch
Lefty Matt Moore (left elbow soreness) played catch Sunday morning for the first time in four days. Moore had been shut down after feeling some lingering soreness while throwing a bullpen session Wednesday, but he said he was pain-free while playing catch from 75 feet with head athletic trainer Ron Porterfield. The next step for Moore, out since July 28, is to continue throwing every day until he's ready to throw another bullpen session.
"It went exactly like I wanted it to," Moore said. "I played easy catch and worked in some arm speed."
• Rays center fielder Desmond Jennings is expected to come off the disabled list and rejoin the team in Baltimore on Monday. Jennings has been out since Aug. 4 with a fractured left middle finger.
Orioles: Hardy rests again
Shortstop J.J. Hardy sat out of Sunday's game, his second straight day off due to back spasms, but he said he felt "100 percent better." Manager Buck Showalter said Hardy should be back "100 percent" for Monday's series opener, and he just didn't want to risk injuring Hardy by playing him Sunday.
"[It's] really tough," Hardy said of sitting out consecutive games amid a playoff race. "Coming into the season, I wanted to play 162 and I felt like the first day off, I probably could have played through whatever I was feeling, just kind of a scheduled day off. Yesterday would have been a little bit tougher considering I've had back spasms before, about five, six years ago."
• Starter Jason Hammel (right forearm tightness) will throw off flat ground again Monday and Wednesday, hoping that he'll be back on the mound by Friday. Hammel has been on the disabled list since July 31, and he'll likely need a few Minor League rehab starts before he rejoins the Orioles.
• With a double and a home run in Sunday's 2-1 win over the Blue Jays, Rays third baseman Evan Longoria has 10 extra-base hits over his last 11 games. He had only seven extra-base hits over his previous 33 games from June 23-Aug. 4.
• Both clubs are playing defense at a historic pace this season. Through 121 games entering Sunday, the Rays' 44 errors were the second-fewest in Major League history -- behind only this year's Orioles, who had committed 36. They're both on pace to break the 2003 Mariners' mark for the fewest errors in a 162-game season (65).