NEW YORK — As most any owner would, Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg remains confident his team will stay in the race for a playoff spot into September.
But with the Rays opening play Thursday at Yankee Stadium only two games over .500 at 37-35 and six games behind the AL East-leading Red Sox, Sternberg made it clear the time is now for his players to show what they can do.
"Our best baseball should be ahead of us here, but by the same token, the last couple weeks it was important for us to play a bit better than we have been," Sternberg said before the 8-3 victory over the Yankees.
"We've got a stretch ahead of us here where we have the opportunity to really do some good stuff. It's important we play really well from here out to the All-Star break."
After playing four games here then three each at home against the red-hot Blue Jays and Central Division power Tigers, the Rays enter, arguably, the softest part of their schedule: 14 games going into the All-Star break against the Astros, White Sox and Twins, who have three of the five worst records in the American League.
Sternberg said to this point, the defense has been the only consistent aspect of the Rays' performance, the rest "topsy-turvy."
And the key to improvement?
"We have to start replicating offensively what we did in May, and we need to start pitching like we know we can pitch," he said.
Sternberg was getting his first look Thursday at prized prospect OF Wil Myers, who made his debut Tuesday.
"It's great we had the opportunity to bring him up," he said. "The offense, the hitting, there really was not a place for him at all, and he was struggling a little bit down at (Triple-A) Durham a little bit the first month or so. And he seemed to put it together at the same time some of our bats went a little bit cold."
MOLINA THE DH: Trying to get as many right-handed hitters into the lineup as he could against Yankees LHP Andy Pettitte, Rays manager Joe Maddon made a surprising move, using veteran C Jose Molina as the designated hitter, though he went 0-for-3.
Surprising even to Molina, who said he came into the clubhouse, saw Jose Lobaton's name in the lineup in the usual eighth spot for the catcher and assumed he was off for the day. But Molina found out differently when he got to the trainers' room.
FOR STARTERS: RHP Alex Colome was officially announced as the Saturday starter, taking injured RHP Alex Cobb's spot in the rotation. The Rays will make a move to make room after tonight's game, with RHP Josh Lueke, called up after Cobb was hit on the right ear by a line drive Saturday, likely to be sent down.
COBB UPDATE: The Rays have not set a timetable for Cobb's return as he has a concussion, fluid buildup in his ear and balance issues.
Cobb, though, was able to go to the Trop on Thursday to do light arm exercises and tweeted: "Never thought I'd have so much fun doing arm exercises! Nice to finally leave the house… The rehab process had begun!"
Maddon said: "Obviously it's a step in the right direction. Glad to hear it."
MILESTONE MOMENT: Thursday was the 2,500th game in Rays franchise history — they are 1,141-1,359 after the victory — and the only person who was in a Tampa Bay uniform for Game 1 and Game 2,500 is bench coach Dave Martinez, who started the franchise opener in rightfield and got the first hit in franchise history.
"To be able to be a part of the first game there and to do the things we've done now and be part of the organization now, it's truly a great feeling," Martinez said.
MISCELLANY: CF Desmond Jennings reached base four times, drawing raves from Maddon for the quality of his at-bats. … LHP David Price, out since mid May with a triceps strain, will make his first rehab start at 5 p.m. today at Bradenton's McKechnie Field, pitching for advanced Class A Charlotte. … RHP Roberto Hernandez starts tonight. Maddon said there has been improvement: "Primarily, we've learned him better, and we've been able to help him suggestionwise in regards to anything usage and how to use his stuff."