Rays can only hope momentum doesn't take break
Arrival of time off for All-Star Game comes with club playing its best
ST. PETERSBURG -- Just when the Rays are playing their best baseball of the summer, they have to put their bats, balls and momentum away for four days.
The countdown for next week's All-Star Game respite is underway. Don't blame Tampa Bay skipper Joe Maddon if he's a tad concerned about the interruption to what is rapidly becoming an outstanding year.
If the season were to end today, the Rays would be one of the two American League Wild Cards. Maddon believes they can win the division.
They've been on a blistering roll since falling briefly to the AL East's basement on June 23.
Their torrid pace hit a bump in the road at Tropicana Field on Friday night, when the Astros, riding the magnificent Major League debut of 23-year-old Jarred Cosart, stunned the Rays, 2-1, to end their eight-game winning streak. It was the longest active streak in the Major Leagues.
Regardless, the Rays have won 12 of their last 14 games and their 39-23 record since May 8 is the best in the Majors.
"You're not going to win every night in this game," Maddon said. "It's about effort and intent. If we play with that kind of intent and effort on a nightly basis we'll win a lot of games. We just got slightly out-pitched tonight."
Cosart, pitching for the team with the worst record in the Major Leagues, held the Rays to just two singles through eight innings and didn't allow a hit until Ben Zobrist singled to right field with one out in the seventh.
The Rays scored their only run against reliever Jose Veras in the ninth. The game ended when Evan Longoria looked at a third strike, with runners on first and third.
But for his third straight start since returning from the disabled list, 2012 AL Cy Young Award winner David Price was awesome -- after he allowed four hits and Houston's two runs in the first inning.
Maddon keeps saying that the Rays' current success is built on pitching. He has to be encouraged by Price. The left-hander threw his second consecutive complete game, needing only 87 pitches. He allowed just four hits after his disastrous first inning.
"I gave him [Cosart] two runs right out of the gate before he made a pitch," Price said. "I know the difference in having runs, especially if you can get them in the first before you go out there. Sometimes, you just have to tip your cap, as a hitter and as a pitcher. I just got out-pitched tonight."
Maybe Price himself encouraged the young right-hander.
"It was crazy," said Cosart, who was traded to the Astros by the Phillies as part of a package of prospects in a Deadline deal for Hunter Pence in 2011. "He [Price] tweeted me this morning and said, 'Good luck. Most of all, have fun.' I've looked up to him -- I mean, he's one of the best pitchers in the game. That was my thing not to go out there and try to be David Price or beat David Price because he's a Cy Young winner, All-Star, all that stuff."
To a player, the Rays insist they'll put the shocking loss behind. Maddon said, "I love the fight in this group. It's not going to be an oil painting every night. I've talked about that before, but I thought the overall effort once again was there."
So when this band of energetic players finishes its game with Houston on Sunday afternoon, with the exception of Zobrist and Matt Moore, who'll be off to New York for Tuesday night's All-Star Game, they'll scatter to vacation hotspots away from Tropicana Field. They won't play baseball again until they jet off to Toronto on July 19.
There have always been pros and cons about the days when baseball is shut down for the All-Star Game.
It's an ideal time for players to nurse nagging injuries and a perfect lull for underachieving teams to pick up the pieces and rebuild their seasons.
But danger lurks for juggernauts that have been on a roll.
Maddon frowned when he said before Friday night's game, "Let's finish this sucker off before the break, enjoy ourselves. And then come back with the same intensity."
That's not to say there's no apprehension: "When you're playing well and you come to a big break you're always a little concerned. I want to believe it's going to carry over. The four days of rest will be helpful because we've been playing with a set group -- players who've been on their feet a lot and need some rest."
The R&R will be beneficial, but there's always the risk they'll return rusty.
After they resume their season in Toronto, they go to Boston on July 22 for what will be a telltale series against the first-place Red Sox. After that, they play three games at Yankee Stadium.
Those two series will be the first the Rays have played against winning, contending teams since they took two out of three from the Tigers in late June.
Winning against losing teams such as the Astros, Twins and White Sox is one thing, but what about facing the big boys?
Maddon's reply and theory on that is against "the better teams in the league -- you've really got to stand your ground, hold your own and hopefully come out on top. Against teams that aren't doing as well -- you really do have to put some hay in the barn at that point."
He believes teams that can do that normally are successful. Others fall by the wayside.
"Maybe the teams that don't do that just miss out," he said. "In our best years we did not stumble in that regard."
Cosart can testify to that. He was at the Phillies instructional league in 2008 when the Rays were winning the AL Championship Series over Boston en route to their World Series date with the Phillies.
"I was at the game when they beat the Red Sox to win it," he said. "I know how good a team they are."
They have a chance to maybe be just as good this year, but they cannot let the momentum they've built slip away.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.