ST. PETERSBURG — The best 41-50 team in baseball returned home Monday.
Now they’re 41-51.
Suddenly the Rays felt frisky.
Suddenly these fourth-place hellions had a chance ... at an outside chance.
Plus there was a guy at David Price’s Trop locker before Monday’s game with the Royals who looked just like David Price.
It was Ten Days That Shook The Rays: a 9-2 road trip that resonated still as the lads went against their old pal, James Shields, one of the great bulldogs in club history.
Now they’re 41-51. Edge: Bulldog. Shields was like the Rays remembered him: three hits, 10 strikeouts in seven masterful innings before giving way to Wade Davis, who for old time’s sake pitched a perfect eighth with two strikeouts. Rays lose going away, 6-0.
For a few days in July at least, the Rays didn’t seem like lunatics for saying it’s not over. Or that All-Star Price will be a Ray for the rest of the season. All it took was a buzzsaw, winning three of four at the Orioles, three of three at the Yankees and three of four in Detroit against the Tigers.
They were 41-50, just 81⁄2 back of first-place Baltimore in the surprisingly creaky AL East heading into Monday.
Now they’re 41-51.
For 10 days, the Rays played like they were supposed to play this season, that or they were master illusionists, enough to invoke “anything is possible.”
For 10 days, Joe Maddon didn’t sound like the Candy Man.
“We’ve been in worse situations than this a couple of times,” said still-a-Ray Price before Monday’s game. “In 2011, we were 91⁄2 games back in September and we were able to overcome that.”
“We’ve got a month and a half longer this time,” said Rays pitcher Jeremy Hellickson, who is finally off the DL to make his first start of the season tonight.
Yeah, they’ve got nothing but time …
Reality still has a headlock on this team, even as it won eight of 10 and 10 of 13 and 17 of 26, going from the worst record in baseball to passing 10 teams as if they were standing still. Then again, this year in baseball, lots of teams are standing still.
There’s still a mountain in front of Maddon’s men. Ten wins in 13 games helped them ... nudge just a half-game out of last place.
At the end of May, the Rays were 9½ games out of first. Today, they’re ... 9½ games out of first.
Yes, they were once 15 games out. And their division is amazingly feeble, no runaway teams — 90 wins, maybe less, could take the East.
But to win 90 games, the Rays would have to go 49-21 the rest of the way. To win 88, they’d need to go 47-23.
For a few days in July at least ...
One bad week, like this six-game homestand, three with the Royals, then three with the Blue Jays, and they go from “Anything is possible” to “We sure will miss David. Zo, too.” The line is razor thin.
This still has the feel of one of those NBA games, you know, where you’re 30 points down, scratch and claw back to within 10, then get blown out just the same.
This doesn’t feel like 2011 as much as it seems like 2009, when the Rays broke badly, fought to within six games of Boston and the wild card in September, only to lose 11 in a row. And it’s important to remember that those Rays were never more than five games under .500 during the year and they were 12 games over .500 when they faded. And when they missed the playoffs in 2012, they finished 90-72.
And now back to those charging 41-51 Rays.
“If we keep playing how we’re playing, with Helly coming back, it’s not out of the realm of possibility,” said lights-out reliever Jake McGee.
For a few days in July, at least.