ST. PETERSBURG — Desmond Jennings was walking up the tunnel to the Rays’ clubhouse after Friday’s win with Evan Longoria when Longoria said, “We’re the fourth team to do this.”
“Do what?” Jennings replied.
Oh, reach .500 after being at least 18 games under at one point during the season.
“I didn’t even know our record,” Jennings said after the Rays beat the Yankees 5-0 on Friday night in front of 26,535 fans at Tropicana Field to reach .500 for the first time since April 22.
“I wasn’t thinking about it, and I don’t know if anybody else really was,” added Ben Zobrist. “We were just focused on getting back into those winning ways.”
The Rays certainly have done that, with a 37-19 record since June 11. They have won seven of their last nine games and are just 51⁄2 games out of the second wild-card spot.
“It’s good to get back to .500,” Jennings said, “but we’re just trying to win games and get to the playoffs, so we’d have to get to .500 at some point.”
And that mentality is one reason why the Rays have been able to make the climb out of the abyss and join the 1899 Louisville Cardinals (22 games under), 2006 Marlins (20 games under) and the 2004 Devil Rays (18 games under) as the four teams to reach .500 after being at least 18 under. None of those three finished with a winning record.
The Rays’ focus is on more than shedding a losing record.
“It was not easy,” manager Joe Maddon said. “We definitely dug ourselves a substantial hole, and then we’re getting out of it now. To get back to even ground is very important.”
Before the game, Maddon said the goal was to get to .500, then five games above .500, then 10 then see where it takes them.
Adding fuel to the team’s confidence is that Friday’s game began a six-game homestand against two teams the Rays are chasing in the wild-card hunt — the Yankees and Tigers. After that comes a road trip through Toronto and Baltimore — two more teams the Rays are chasing.
“This is who we should have been all year,” said Alex Cobb, who earned his sixth straight victory with 71⁄3 innings of six-hit ball Friday. “It was mind-boggling that we went through the stretch that we did, but we’re back on track now, and we’re going to do everything we can and control our own destiny in playing teams that are ahead of us in the next month-and-a-half and try to climb some ground.”
Cobb, who tied former teammate David Price for the most consecutive wins this season by a Rays pitcher, earned his first victory at the Trop since June 29.
He, along with Brad Boxberger, who pitched his way out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the eighth inning, and Joel Peralta, who worked a perfect ninth inning, extended the franchise record of games in which the Rays allowed three or fewer runs to 11.
The Rays had to scratch for nearly all their runs Friday against Yankees starter Brandon McCarthy. Three of the first four runs came on ground-ball outs. The other run took an error on a grounder to third for Logan Forsythe to reach in the seventh inning and a sacrifice bunt to get him to second. From there, he easily scored on Curt Casali’s single to right field.
James Loney finished the scoring in the eighth inning with his sixth home run of the year.
Boxberger recorded the biggest outs of the night when he replaced Cobb with two on and one out in the eighth inning. Boxberger allowed a single to Derek Jeter that loaded the bases. He then struck out Jacoby Ellsbury and Mark Teixeira to end the Yankees threat.
The Rays were 10-10 when the season appeared to go south. It took them 102 games to get back to even.
“We’re in the middle of August still, and it’s just been a battle for a long, long time to try to get back to this point,” Zobrist said. “It’s good we finally got here, but we don’t feel like we’re done. We’re going to keep pushing and get over .500 here and make a run for it.”