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Rays back in the playoff discussion after ninth win in a row

Maybe the Rays aren't out of this yet. On Saturday evening, Jeremy Hellickson and four relievers combined to shut out the Red Sox, giving Tampa Bay its ninth straight win -- the franchise’s longest winning streak since June 2004. The Rays are now 51-53, 6 1/2 games back in the AL East, and 3 1/2 back in the Wild Card race.

Hellickson was making just his second major league start of the season. He missed the first three months following surgery to remove loose bodies from his elbow, and after making his first major league start of the year on July 8 went back to the minors to remain stretched out until the Rays needed a fifth starter again. He was called up on Saturday, while Juan Carlos Oviedo was designated for assignment to make room on the 25-man roster.

Thus on a short leash, the 27-year-old righty lasted only 4 2/3 innings, but he scattered five hits and two walks while striking out five, and retired all three batters he faced with runners in scoring position. He caught his biggest break in the top of the first inning, when what originally appeared to be a David Ortiz home run to right field was ruled a ground-rule double due to interference by a fan -- a Red Sox fan at that:

The call was upheld upon review.

Manager Joe Maddon pulled Hellckson after 96 pitches, and relievers Jeff Beliveau, Grant Balfour, Brad Boxberger and Jake McGee, took the baton the rest of the way, combining to yield three hits and one walk while striking out five over 4 1/3.

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hit a solo homer off Lackey

 to cap the scoring.

With starters Hellickson, Matt Moore and Alex Cobb all sidelined for long periods of time, the Rays stumbled to a 24-42 (.364) start through June 10, losing 14 out of 15 games to fall to 18 games under .500, their lowest point since the end of the 2007 season. They were 15 back in the AL East at that point. From June 11 onward, they've gone a major league-best 27-11 (.711), climbing 8 ½ games in the division standings and trimming what was once a -55 run differential to -3.

Hanging in the balance with the Rays’ surge, of course, is the fate of David Price. Had the team continued to bumble along far below .500, they almost certainly would trade the ace lefty, who would be the July 31st deadline’s top prize. Price has one more year of arbitration eligibility remaining before he reaches free agency but could take up 25 percent of the team’s payroll next year, and almost certainly isn’t going to sign a long-term extension with the Rays given their financial limitations. If the team is in the hunt, it’s harder to justify trading Price, though the return they’ll receive for dealing in the winter is likely to be less.

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, only three teams have even come back from 18 under to taste .500: the 1899 Louisville Colonels (who were 22 under at one point), the 2004 Devil Rays (18 under) and the 2006


(20 under). None of those teams finished at .500 or better, though the 2004 Devil Rays are the ones who set the aforementioned franchise record with 12 straight wins.

In order to get to 90 wins, which would match the pace of the AL East-leading Orioles, the Rays still have to go 39-19 (.672) -- a 109-win pace over a full season -- the rest of the way. That’s a tall order, but so long as the Rays’ streak continues, they’ll attempt to convince themselves it’s possible.