ST. PETERSBURG — When Alex Cobb woke up Saturday and checked his phone to see how Friday night's marathon turned out, he was thrilled to learn his Rays prevailed but confused to see Jeremy Hellickson's photo as the winning pitcher.
"Couldn't figure that one out," Cobb said.
Once he got more details — that the Rays used a major-league record-tying 11 pitchers, including Hellickson, who was to start today, to get through the 18 innings — Cobb knew exactly what he had to do in Saturday's matinee: pitch well and deep into the game.
Cobb accomplished both in dominating fashion, taking a shutout into the ninth and, with some help from Desmond Jennings, leading the Rays to a 5-1 victory that kept them atop the American League wild-card race heading into the season's final week.
"He was fantastic," manager Joe Maddon said. "We needed it. There's no question."
The Rays (85-69) won their seventh in their past 10 games and maintained their half-game lead over the Indians and one-game edge on the Rangers. They are 3½ ahead of the Yankees and four ahead of the Royals and Orioles.
Maddon, once again, is hoping, begging, pleading that the latest success — including two wins in about 14 hours — provides the elusive impetus and momentum to get the Rays on a hot streak that carries them into the playoffs.
"They've been really difficult wins against really good baseball teams," he said. "That in and of itself should pick up your overall confidence a bit, I would hope. But then again you always have to be careful when things are going well because that's when you do have a tendency to let down, and we can't do that. … We've used all our mulligans."
Cobb actually did not start well, a bit "over-amped" as Maddon calls it and admittedly putting too much pressure on himself, walking two of the first four batters. "Tried to make too good of pitches," Cobb said. "Too fine."
But once he settled down he settled in, and the Orioles didn't have much of a chance, especially with crisp defense behind him. Cobb retired 12 straight and didn't allow a hit until two outs in the fifth, only three total with two outs to go when leftfielder David DeJesus lost a ball in the roof, resulting in a triple. After an ensuing RBI single Maddon summoned closer Fernando Rodney.
Still, it was an impressive and important performance — five hits, 12 strikeouts, two walks — by Cobb, earning a roaring ovation from the lively Tropicana Field crowd of 23,835.
"He was unbelievable," Jennings said. "I could kind of see around the third or fourth inning where the game was going with him. He was throwing all of his pitches for strikes whenever he wanted to and you could see his confidence is through the roof."
Said Baltimore's Adam Jones: "Cobb was dealing. … I don't like giving pitchers credit, but you've got to give that man some credit. He did what he wanted to do."
The Rays didn't do much with some early opportunities against Orioles starter Miguel Gonzalez, but Jennings addressed that in the fifth. After walks to Jose Molina and Yunel Escobar and a flyout, Jennings turned on a full-count fastball and knocked it into the leftfield seats, his career-high 14th homer of the season. He later tripled in another run and scored.
After a rough couple of weeks making several costly defensive mistakes and struggling at the plate, Jennings — buoyed by a confidence-building speech from Maddon — has played a major role in the past three wins: He had a walkoff single Wednesday, doubled and scored the winning run Friday, got the big hits Saturday.
"I was in the middle of every big loss for a while," Jennings said. "So it feels good to be on the other side, and it's good for our team."
At this point, they'll take everything.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays.