FREDERICK, Md. — When Matt Price and Christian Walker lived together with a host family earlier this year, they got a chance to talk often about their adjustments to professional baseball.
Both decided to skip their final season at South Carolina after being drafted last year by the Baltimore Orioles — Walker in the fourth round, Price in the seventh. They began this season together in Salisbury, Md., with the Delmarva Shorebirds, the Orioles’ low Class A affiliate in the South Atlantic League.
As they embarked on the unforgiving, every-day grind of minor league ball — with cramped clubhouses, six-hour bus rides and smaller crowds than typically found in the SEC — it would have been easy for Price and Walker to reminisce about grander times at USC, where they led the Gamecocks to national championships in 2010 and 2011 and a runner-up finish at last year’s College World Series.
But neither is here in the low minors, at the dawn of a career, to do the easy thing. So those three halcyon seasons in Columbia remained mostly left in the past.
“That never really comes up,” Walker said. “It was awesome and we enjoyed it and it was a great time, but it’s time to move on and try to make this as successful as that was.”
Walker and Price are now teammates on their third team, the Frederick Keys, Baltimore’s high Class A affiliate. Walker debuted in Frederick on May 12. Price followed on June 8.
Among the core group of Gamecocks from 2010-12 — the most successful run ever for any USC sport — Walker, Price and centerfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. were considered the three most promising pro prospects. Walker was a broad-shouldered first baseman with a disciplined hitting approach to complement his power. Price was a dominant closer who removed the stress from so many tight, late-game situations, especially in the NCAA tournament.
Walker and Price likely won’t ascend as quickly as Bradley, the 40th pick in 2011, who reached the major leagues on Opening Day this season, as a 22-year-old. Walker, 22, and Price, 23, figure to take a more typical and deliberate path through the minors, especially since Walker got just 81 at-bats last season in short-season Class A Aberdeen (Md.) and Price didn’t pitch at all.
“I think (the Orioles) are going to take their time with them, and get them in a situation where they’re comfortable, and try not to rush guys as much as we used to,” said Frederick manager Ryan Minor, who is best known for being the first player to replace Cal Ripken Jr. after his consecutive games streak ended.
The jump Walker and Price made from Delmarva to Frederick isn’t nearly as much pressure as replacing Ripken. But both players are experiencing the fits and starts that a minor league promotion often brings.
Walker was USC’s best hitter in his final two seasons, when he had 21 home runs and 117 runs batted-in. In 2011, he had a .358 batting average and .992 on-base plus slugging percentage. In 2012, those numbers dipped slightly, to .321 and .975. Walker began 2013 in Delmarva, and tore through the South Atlantic League, with a .353 batting average and .894 OPS.
Price’s earned-run average ballooned from 1.83 in 2011 to 3.48 in 2012, but his walks plus hits per inning pitched remained steady — 1.08 and 1.11. In his final two seasons, he had 179 strikeouts and 51 walks. He threw in 21 career NCAA tournament games, and had a 1.03 ERA and 0.98 WHIP. He was, quite simply, one of college baseball’s best ever postseason pitchers.
In Delmarva this year, Price appeared in 16 games, all in relief, and had a 2.70 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 21 strikeouts and eight walks.
Moving to Frederick has brought humbling results at times for both players.
Walker started hot, with a .358 batting average and 18 RBI in his first 27 games. In his next 20 games, through Wednesday (his 100th professional game), his average was .137, with just eight RBI, as he has too often chased the high inside fastball.
Price had thrown in eight games through Wednesday, all in relief, and allowed eight earned runs in eight innings. His WHIP was 2.25. But in his most recent three outings, he allowed two hits, one walk and one earned run in 3 1/3 innings — a small step in the right direction.
As Walker and Price navigate these new experiences, they’ve been able to lean on each other to ease the transition.
“It’s all worked out for the best so far,” Price said.
Baseball catches up
From the beginning of Price’s USC career, coach Ray Tanner considered him one of the most prodigious hitters he ever saw. But Price got few chances to hit with a wooden bat in games. He was supposed to play in the wooden-bat Cape Cod League after the 2011 season, but a broken hamate bone in his left wrist sidelined him.
Before turning pro, Walker had hit with wood in high school travel league games. Most of his wood swings came off the tee in USC’s batting cages. USC’s players purchase wood bats with their own money and use them whenever possible, to prepare for the next level.
“Any time I wasn’t on the field in college, I was pretty much swinging wood,” Walker said. “It just helps develop better habits.”
But unlike college, Walker now has precious little time between games to tweak his swing or plate approach during a slump.
“In college, if you felt uncomfortable one weekend series, you’d have a couple days through the week to work on stuff,” Walker said. “Right now, if you feel something that’s going on one night, you’ve got a couple hours in the cage the next day before your next game to try to figure it out. I’m definitely feeling a little bit more comfortable. Everything is short-term and real quick, so it’s hard to make any mechanical adjustments.”
During his recent slump, Walker learned one of the harsher truths for young pro players.
“The league adjusted to him,” Minor said.
The waiting ends
While Walker transitioned right into pro ball last summer, debuting 11 days after USC’s final game in Omaha, Price had to wait longer.
He almost turned pro after being drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2011, his third year at USC and second full season. But he returned to college to become a starting pitcher, the role Arizona projected for him. Price made just five starts, because USC needed him to close again.
After studying a college career in which just six of his 102 appearances were starts, Baltimore told Price it wanted to keep him as a late-inning reliever. Price was eager to get going, but the Orioles also said they would shut him down for the remainder of 2012, to rest his tired arm.
“I wanted to make my debut (last summer), but they had a plan for me not to pitch until this year,” Price said.
His baseball duties last year compromised workouts and pitching in fall instructional league games at the Orioles’ spring training facility in Sarasota, Fla. Before he even threw his first real professional pitch, he made a bigger step in his life, when he proposed last fall to his high school girlfriend, Abbye Durant. Though beginning this season meant preparing for his Nov. 2 wedding from afar, and leaving Durant back home in Sumter, it also meant Price’s waiting was over.
“I was really ready to go this spring training,” he said.
Because Price is an older Class A player who threw 212 1/3 innings in college, the Orioles indicated to him that they are willing to push him along quickly in their system, to determine if he is good enough. To show he is, Price must show he can retire batters with accurate breaking balls, rather than just his fastball, which he relied on at USC.
“You have to get hitters off your fastball at some point, especially as you start moving up,” Minor said. “Guys aren’t afraid to swing at breaking balls. But they’re not going to swing at breaking balls out of the zone at this level and higher consistently, to where you can just throw your fastball. He’s going to have to throw that (breaking) pitch for a strike. He’s done it so far.”
Typical of the many adjustments Walker and Price are making this summer, Price also changed his entrance music. He uses a 2011 electronic dance song, Major Lazer’s “Original Don,” instead of “The Price Is Right” theme, the catchy ditty that reminds so many of Price’s magical moments at USC. They, and that song, remain fond memories for him. But up here, neither matters anymore.
“That was kind of what I had at Carolina,” Price said of his old song. “That’s where I wanted it to stay.”