Reaching .500 just another stepping stone as Rays continue climb

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Reliever Joel Peralta slapped catcher Curt Casali’s hand near home plate. It was one of the first visible signs that the Tampa Bay Rays, left for dead for so long, were a .500 team once more — a far cry from where they thought they would be in those idealistic spring training days but a remarkable feat given the winding-and-wretched path they have traveled since then.

Rays manager Joe Maddon emerged from his dugout in his dark-blue hoodie and offered high-fives to the line of players before him, first to left fielder Ben Zobrist, then others. The Rays had routed the New York Yankees 5-0 on Friday night at Tropicana Field to improve to 61-61, looking like the opposite of the lifeless group that had sulked off this same turf after a loss to the St. Louis Cardinals on June 10 that dropped them to a season-worst 24-42.

It’s amazing how different .500 can feel. It’s the ultimate glass-half-full, glass-half-empty test, with perspective in the eye of a beholder, either weary or full of wonder. It can be disappointment for those with once-high aspirations. It can be elation for overachievers looking to take the next stride into a great unknown.

For the Rays, both big dreamers and big letdowns all in the same summer, they have climbed from their once-dark depths to discover another test waiting: This point should mark the start, not a close, of their urgency to make this once-forgettable season memorable for a long while.

"When we were going poorly, if you remember, it was just really frustrating, because in so many awkward ways, things were just not rolling," Maddon said. "I always thought we were good. It was just a strange course of events. Couldn’t get that hit. Couldn’t make that pitch. We were making uncharacteristic errors. Nothing wanted to flow. Nothing was meshing properly, although I liked the names and the team on the field.

Rays vs. Yankees

"For us, I thought it was a matter of time. We had to get our confidence back. Once we’ve done that, it has been a different ballclub."

The Rays have been a different team since late June, when a quiet victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates on June 25 at Tropicana Field sparked the fireworks of a 13-4 run before the All-Star break. Then there was the three-game sweep of the Minnesota Twins from July 18-20. Then there were the two victories over the St. Louis Cardinals to follow. Then there were the two victories in three games against the Boston Red Sox … and on and on.

Friday was more evidence that the mystifying 1-14 run from May 26-June 10 seems like a bad dream, an enigma that sticks out in the Rays’ schedule like a dark joke. How could the team seen Friday, one in which right-hander Alex Cobb allowed just six hits and struck out eight, collapse like that? How could the squad observed on this night, one that shook Yankees pitching for eight hits and capitalized off two errors to silence a large pro-New York contingent, sink to become the majors’ worst?

An attempt to explain the Rays’ slide has been tried often. Blame an underwhelming rotation that lost Cobb and left-hander Matt Moore early and included, at one point, both left-handers Cesar Ramos and Erik Bedard. Blame an anemic offense that made a 2-0 deficit seem like 6-0. Blame a belief that the Rays, when they faltered, lack the confidence to recover.

No more.

"The attitude in here is there’s no quit," Cobb said. "It’s kind of been an organizational philosophy for the past years where guys just never give up. You saw it in 2011 with (Game No.) 162 and even years after that, where for some reason, we keep digging ourselves holes but we never quit. … Guys don’t believe in the fact that we’re a bad team."

The pieces look different than expected, but the climb has been made nonetheless, making Tampa Bay only the fourth team in major-league history to reach .500 after being 18 games below. Try Cobb as the de facto ace instead of left-hander David Price. Try Jake McGee and Brad Boxberger as the late-inning bullpen answers instead of Grant Balfour. Try Kevin Kiermaier as the hair-on-fire outfielder who has jumpstarted his clubhouse instead of Wil Myers.

Yes, this is a short-term goal met, not a destination realized. It should be more springboard than reason to celebrate.

"Obviously, we’re in the middle of August still," Zobrist said. "It has just been a battle for a long, long time to get back to this point. So yeah, it’s good we finally got here. But we don’t feel like we’re done. We’re going to keep pushing and get over .500 here and make a run for it."

That run can’t be done alone. As rare as this climb back to .500 from 18 games below has become — only the 1899 Louisville Colonels, 2004 Tampa Bay Devil Rays and 2006 Florida Marlins had done it before — none of the squads to achieve it finished with a winning record. The Rays are chasing history in more ways than one.

They’re good enough to close as a winning team. Their goal should remain winning series and capturing the American League’s second wild-card spot, a target that can’t be gained without help from the Detroit Tigers, Toronto Blue Jays, Yankees and Cleveland Indians. Still, the Rays must do their part by remaining consistent, by remaining a threat.

"We dug ourselves a nice little hole, man," Maddon said. "But the hole is not too big. I think we can definitely fill it in and move forward."

The Rays have moved in the proper direction since late June, when a lost season became found. Friday, at last, they reached that revealing .500 threshold, with the knowledge that they have more to do.

Deep in Tropicana Field, first baseman James Loney stood outside the entrance to his clubhouse, a dark dirt stain on the front of his uniform. Clapping could be heard within the walls behind him. Another postgame celebration was underway.

Loney knew what to do.

"Let’s go!" he said to no one in particular, before disappearing into the party.

Indeed, .500 is a start. But there are more places to go, more distance to travel.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.