ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays are playing for a lot these days, not just to continue their improbable climb back to .500 and into playoff contention but potentially to keep ace David Price and others from being traded.
And they are playing like it, battling from behind for a second straight night to beat the NL Central-leading Brewers 5-1 Tuesday.
"It's kind of funny; we've been playing so well, I haven't even worried about it too much," said Ben Zobrist, the subject of trade rumors himself. "Right now it's just so much fun to play with this club that I can't imagine anything being broke up at this point."
After two key hits from Zobrist and a sterling start by Alex Cobb, the Rays have 11 wins in their past 12 games and a majors-best 29 in 41 to push their record to 53-54, a staggering run back since being 18 games under .500 at 24-42 on June 10. It's not clear if it's enough to keep Price from being traded by Thursday's deadline as they remain seven games behind the AL East-leading Orioles.
Manager Joe Maddon, however, has even bigger goals.
"We're playing for the World Series," he said. "That's our objective. It's been from Day 1. For me, it's to get to the playoffs and win the World Series, and that has not changed.
"I'm telling you, we're one of the best teams in the American League. Our record does not reflect it yet, but if we keep playing like this, it soon shall. There's a lot of time left. We need to do the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid thing and make these people look in the rearview mirror and say, 'Who are those guys?' That's the objective. We've got to keep pushing, pushing and pushing."
They did a pretty good job of it Tuesday, before a spirited Trop crowd of 16,249, breaking the game open after Cobb and ex-Ray Matt Garza dueled for seven innings.
Cobb was dominant for a second straight start. He held the Brewers to the one run on three hits over eight innings, striking out a season-high 12, one off his career best, and picking up his first home win.
"It does feel like I'm starting to get in the groove again," Cobb said. "And it does feel fun again."
After the Brewers manufactured a run on one hit in the fifth, Zobrist got the Rays even in the sixth, turning on a 96 mph Garza fastball and lofting it just fair down the rightfield line.
He came through again at the start of what turned out to be a four-run eighth off reliever Will Smith. With pinch-hitter Sean Rodriguez on third after a walk, a bunt and a wild pitch, Zobrist laced a 3-and-2 pitch to left. "Probably the bigger hit," he said.
For whatever reason — including the chance to be the fourth team in history to get back to .500 after being 18 under — the Rays are playing their best.
"The team has been fighting since spring training to get all things clicking together," Cobb said. "And it just so happens the timing of it that we're really working together now, all facets of the game are at its peak."
Contact Marc Topkin at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays