ST. PETERSBURG -- Looking ahead to Game 1 of the American League Division Series, David Price put his start against the Rangers into perspective.

"It's big," Price said Tuesday. "It's the biggest game I've ever been a part of coming into tomorrow. It'll be a lot of fun, and [I'm] hoping for a good game, offensively, defensively and pitching."

Price is in a different place than he was the first time he entered a Major League postseason in 2008, and didn't exactly know what to expect.

The talented left-hander was a wild card the Rays brought up for use as a weapon -- one they ended up using in select situations at the end of the game.

Game 7 of the American League Championship Series brought the most prominent of those situations, and Price came through in the clutch, earning a save when the game got hot to propel the Rays over the Red Sox and into the World Series.

Price had the raw talent in 2008; now that talent has been refined to where he's the No. 1 starter for Tampa Bay. A spare part during his first October journey, he is now the gears, the fan belt, the carburetor and all the good stuff that drives the Rays' engine.

Price feels as though he is a completely different pitcher now.

"Two years ago, I felt like I was more of a thrower," Price said. "Now I've developed into more of a pitcher, and that's hard work."

Price credited pitching coach Jim Hickey, assistant to the pitching coach Stan Boroski and former Rays coach Todd Greene for helping his development.

"It's all those guys," Price said. "I'm a product of what they've put into me right now, and I feel like I'm really night and day of what I used to be."

Price enters the postseason at 19-6 with a 2.72 ERA, and he's thrown 208 2/3 innings, yet he feels fresh, which is a testament to the program he follows during the season.

"I feel like my program this year was very good," Price said. "We all stayed on each other about not missing any workouts, staying on top of your routine. And I feel like over the past year and a half, I've built a pretty solid routine. I've been able to stay on that. I feel like it's worked. My body's felt good."

Price's final start came against the Orioles on Sept. 28, when he pitched eight scoreless innings in a 5-0 win, and he tossed a scoreless inning Saturday night. Not only will Price enter the playoffs with the best season any starting pitcher has had in Rays history, he will enter the postseason as perhaps the hottest pitcher in baseball.

Rays left fielder Carl Crawford pointed out that having Price on the hill means he can better focus on hitting.

"You know what I'm saying?" Crawford said. "When you've got a guy like Price out there, I mean you know there aren't going to be too many balls where you have to waste your energy running hard and worrying about what's going to happen, because he's going to take care of it. It really lets you focus on your offense and not focus too much on your defense."

Crawford remembered what playing left field for Tampa Bay used to be like. There were many nights when Rays pitchers weren't exactly fooling anybody, resulting in their pitches getting hit all over the park. At times Crawford said he would spend entire innings sprinting all over left field in pursuit of hits by the opposition. Such exercises would take their toll.

"It's tough to hit if you're worn out when it's your time to come up to bat," Crawford said.

Rays manager Joe Maddon doesn't throw around the designation of No. 1 starter in baseball, because he believes there are only a handful of said pitchers in the Major Leagues, including the likes of CC Sabathia, Zack Greinke, Roy Halladay and Felix Hernandez to name a few.

He won't yet call Price a No. 1, but he's close.

"Listen, it's undeniable what he's done this year," Maddon said. "He's still a young man. I know if you talk to him, he still sees room for improvement in different areas. And that's what I love about him. He's never going to be satisfied.

"He's so driven to be the best at what he does. He's made a lot of strides this year. And as he becomes more experienced over the next couple of years, absolutely, he's going to be a No. 1."

Price began the 2010 season with his foot on the gas pedal by going 7-1 in his first nine starts with a 2.41 ERA; by July 29, Price was 14-5. Included in his results was a 6-0 complete-game victory over Toronto on April 25.

He's gone up against the best this season and won. Now he's ready to continue his evolution in the 2010 postseason.

"I like pitching against those big-name teams, those big-name players," Price said. "That lets you know where you're at. It kind of tests you. It tests the team and tests what you've got, mentally and physically. It's fun."

And once the spotlight is shining on Price, don't expect him to wilt, since he loves being in that situation.

"Who doesn't?" Price said. "That's what you play the game for. I grew up watching all of my favorite players playing in that spotlight and playing well. To be in this position right now, I love it."