ST. PETERSBURG -- Entering Thursday night's game, there were five teams within two games of each other for the American League's final Wild Card spot.
"I thought it was going to be a dogfight all the way," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "We had been in really good shape right up to that Angels series at home, and then we've kind of struggled a bit. However, you can look at the struggle now, but you can also look at the great body of work prior to that point that permits you to still be in great shape even though you're struggling.
"Everybody fails to point that out also. I know we've struggled recently, but we've put ourselves in good shape to hopefully work through a struggle. And that's what we plan on doing."
Through Aug. 24, the Rays were percentage points ahead of the Red Sox for first place in the AL East. Since then, Tampa Bay is a Major League-worst 4-13 while Boston has gone on a 14-3 run and held a 9 1/2-game division lead entering Thursday's game.
In the Wild Card era (since 1995), never before have five teams competing for the same Wild Card spot been this close together this late in the year.
The closest was when the Padres, Giants, Phillies, Marlins and Reds were separated by 2 1/2 games through Sept. 12, 2006. Last season through Sept. 15, five National League teams were separated by three games: the Dodgers, Cardinals, Pirates, Brewers and Phillies.
Given that the Rays' best shot to reach the postseason appears to be as the AL's Wild Card, Maddon said, "I love it right now" when asked about having a second Wild Card team in each league.
"The thing I think I've been consistent about is I liked it from the beginning from the perspective that it keeps more cities engaged, more fan bases engaged," Maddon said. "Keeps more teams engaged. The part I've always been against has been the one and done thing. I thought it should still be two out of three, but otherwise, I've always thought it was a good idea regarding including more people."
Cobb carrying undefeated mark at Tropicana Field
ST. PETERSBURG -- Alex Cobb received a no-decision in Wednesday night's 7-3 loss to the Red Sox to remain undefeated at Tropicana Field this season and has not lost at home since Sept. 17, 2012, against the Red Sox.
He was not aware of his success at home, where he is 5-0 with a 3.09 ERA in 11 starts this season.
"Yeah, I'm surprised, especially since I've given up six before I've gotten an out," Cobb said. "There's a lot of good fortune that goes into that, because there's been a number of games I can remember off the top of my head where I deserved to get the loss. I think it's one of those anomalies in baseball. You search hard enough and there's going to be a stat for something."
While Cobb didn't place a lot of stock in the significance of being undefeated at home, he did allow that most pitchers are normally more comfortable pitching at certain stadiums than they are at others.
"Yeah, I think any time you pitch somewhere multiple times, whether it's at home or on the road, you kind of get comfortable," Cobb said. "You know what to expect. The mound, pretty much the environment you're going to be working in. It helps you visualize better just the preparation of going into the game.
"Just things like going from the bullpen to the game mound and knowing the adjustments you have to make. Here, the groundcrew does a great job with our bullpen mound and our game mound in making sure they are exactly the same."
Cobb explained that at different stadiums the plate can feel closer or farther away.
"This one feels really true," Cobb said. "Feels real normal, whether that's just because I'm used to it or not, I don't know. But definitely the most comfortable I feel is here."
Maddon regrets not starting Hernandez to open 10th
ST. PETERSBURG -- The Roberto Hernandez bullpen experiment went according to plan until Wednesday night's 7-3 loss to the Red Sox.
After striking out seven over 3 2/3 innings in Anaheim last week, Hernandez sat down for seven days until the Rays turned to him in the 10th inning Wednesday with two runners on base.
The right-hander walked Mike Napoli on four pitches and then pinch-hitter Mike Carp belted a game-winning grand slam on Hernandez's first pitch. After pondering the decision for a night, manager Joe Maddon said he should have gone with Hernandez over Joel Peralta to start the frame.
"I probably should have started him in the inning, because Joel had really warmed up too much last night and I knew that," Maddon said. "I just took a chance and could see from the beginning he didn't have his normal stuff, so under all those circumstances, it would have been better to start him in that inning. … You would always prefer to give someone a clean slate. He's not used to coming in with people on base, but he has done a nice job out of the bullpen twice. He just put a pitch in a bad spot."
Maddon was counting on Hernandez -- known for his sinker -- to deliver a ground ball. Instead, he left a slider up in the strike zone that Carp didn't miss.
"I felt good about putting him in there. I told [shortstop Yunel] Escobar, 'Heads-up. Ground ball right to you here.' And we walk him. The two walks were the critical moments in that inning. Everyone will look at the grand slam obviously, but the two walks were the critical plays in that inning."
Prior to Aug. 23, Hernandez had not pitched out of the bullpen since his rookie season in 2006.
"It was a tough situation, but I don't think about that," Hernandez said. "I think about making a good pitch for a ground-ball double play. I can't control that. I don't think about it being tied. I just wanted to make a good pitch."
• Catcher Jose Molina was not with the team Thursday because he was visiting his mother, Gladys, who recently underwent a surgical procedure in St. Louis.
• Ben Zobrist's seventh-inning walk Wednesday gave him 460 for his career, tying him with Carlos Pena for the club record. Zobrist has spent the entirety of his eight-year career with Tampa Bay.
• Minor League reliever C.J. Riefenhauser was named to Baseball America's year-end All-Star team, the only relief pitcher at any Minor League level to earn the honor. Riefenhauser was 6-1 with a 1.22 ERA and 11 saves in 51 games (34 with Double-A Montgomery and 17 with Triple-A Durham).
• Beach volleyball player Jen Kessy, a 2012 Olympic silver medalist, threw out Thursday's first pitch. Kessy and her partner April Ross will participate in the AVP St. Pete Open at Vinoy Park this weekend.
• The Rays will celebrate Hispanic Heritage month Monday when they return to Tropicana Field to face the Rangers. Fans who wish to buy a Hispanic Heritage Night ticket package will receive a lower-level seat and an Escobar T-shirt.