ST. PETERSBURG — Two months ago, when the Rays were the worst team in baseball, Rays starter Alex Cobb said manager Joe Maddon was practically the only one in the clubhouse who kept talking about getting back to .500.
"I haven't believed him the whole time," Cobb said, "but I won't doubt him again."
Not after Friday's 5-0 win over the Yankees. With their seventh win in nine games, the Rays (61-61) became the fourth team in major-league history to crawl back to .500 after falling at least 18 games under.
That hole reached its lowest point on June 10, when the Rays fell to 24-42. Maddon challenged the Rays to get to .500 through 100 games; they finally did it in Game 122.
"We definitely dug ourselves a substantial hole, and then we're getting out of it now," Maddon said. "To get back to even ground is very important. Now we can look forward."
What the Rays see ahead of them is another steep climb. None of the previous three teams — including the 2004 Devil Rays — to make an 18-game comeback finished with a winning record. The Rays are still one game behind the Yankees for third in the AL East and 51/2 behind Seattle for the second wild-card spot.
"It's good we finally got here," leftfielder Ben Zobrist said, "but we don't feel like we're done."
They're nonetheless closer after a strong performance by Cobb, in front of an announced crowd of 26,535 at Tropicana Field.
Cobb threw 71/3 scoreless innings and lasted a season-high 112 pitches. He struck out eight batters and tied a club record by allowing two or fewer runs in his seventh consecutive start. And he did so despite allowing a leadoff runner five times.
"He was stingy," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "We got some guys on, but it seemed like he got better when we got guys on base."
Cobb pitched around a potential problem in the fourth. Derek Jeter led off with a two-strike infield single, and Cobb threw a wild pitch to get Jeter to second.
"Once that happens, I need to get a strikeout," Cobb said.
He got two then forced Carlos Beltran's groundout, escaping the jam.
Cobb left with two on in the eighth, but reliever Brad Boxberger struck out Jacoby Ellsbury and Mark Teixeira with the bases loaded to preserve the Rays' 15th shutout, and the third in their past seven games.
The Rays' offense did its job, too, with timely hitting. Desmond Jennings — in his return from two days off with a sore shoulder — led off with a single and scored on one of the Rays' three RBI grounders. In the eighth, James Loney added his first home run at Tropicana Field since June 7.
The result evened the Rays' record for the first time since they were 10-10 on April 22. Since July 12, their 19-8 record is the best in the majors.
"This is who we are," Cobb said. "This is who we should have been all year. It's mind-boggling that we went through the stretch that we did, but we're back on track now."
Contact Matt Baker at [email protected]. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.