ST. PETERSBURG — Rookie Wil Myers delivered the big blows in Monday's 6-2 win over the Rangers with a solo homer and two-run double, then coming oh-so-close to a grand slam.
But it was right-hander Alex Cobb who set the tone, outdueling former Rays starter Matt Garza with a superb eight-inning performance, moving Tampa Bay into sole possession of the top American League wild-card spot with 13 games to go.
"He's almost unhittable," Myers said of Cobb. "I would not want to face him at all. He's got three good pitches. His stuff is nasty."
The Rays (82-67) had a nasty taste in their mouths after Sunday's crushing defeat in Minnesota, having blown another late lead. But they showed no signs of a carryover during Monday's all-around team effort — in front of just 10,725 at Tropicana Field — to start what could be a crucial four-game series with the reeling Rangers (81-68).
"What a difference 24 hours makes," manager Joe Maddon said. "We all flew back (Sunday) night, everybody was bummed out. Everybody's euphoric (Monday). Twenty-four hours in this game is an incredible amount of time, it's almost like a year."
The Rays, who clinched a sixth straight winning season, are one game ahead of the Rangers, who have lost seven straight, and 1½ in front of the Indians, thanks to Royals starter James Shields topping Cleveland's Scott Kazmir in Monday's meeting of ex-Rays.
"At this point in the season, the position we're in, every game is going to get bigger and bigger," Cobb said. "We realize the performance we have to put together out there every night, and I think we're up for it."
Cobb, pitted against Garza — the 2008 ALCS MVP for the Rays — was up for the challenge. Cobb said all of his pitches were working, and it showed as he struck out the first four Rangers he faced, and 10 overall, allowing just two runs over eight innings.
"Cobber was outstanding," Maddon said. "He was on top of his game."
The only thing to throw Cobb off was a streaker, a male fan in just white briefs, who raced onto the field before the fifth inning and tried to steal second base before getting tackled. "He scared me a little it; I was ready to throw the ball at him," Cobb said. "I hope he got a lot of money for that."
Garza lasted just 4⅓ innings, charged with six runs on eight hits in an 81-pitch outing. He said he fell behind in too many counts but didn't believe it was a tougher loss coming to the Rays. "It doesn't matter who I'm against," Garza said. "It's my team that's the one I care about."
Maddon thought Garza had good stuff, and the score was tied at 2 heading into the bottom of the fifth, partly because shortstop Yunel Escobar was thrown out at the plate trying to score from second in the third.
But Myers said the Rays started to figure Garza out after a couple of times through the batting order, and it showed in the fifth, their first four-run inning since Aug. 20. They had four hits with runners in scoring position as James Loney and Evan Longoria picked up RBI singles.
But the main one was by Myers, who greeted reliever Jason Frasor with a towering two-run double off the centerfield wall, making it 6-2. He nearly added a grand slam in the sixth, but his long fly ball was caught at the centerfield warning track. "I thought the first one had more of a chance, but I honestly thought both of them were gone," Myers said.
Other than Desmond Jennings misplaying a ball in center in the fifth — diving in for a sinking liner by Mitch Moreland that got past him for a double — the Rays played sparkling defense. That including a run-saving sliding grab by Loney at first and another diving play by Longoria at third.
"A pretty clean game," Maddon said.
And a pretty big win.
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]pabay.com.