DETROIT -- "Don't trade David Price."
That is what the recent play of the Tampa Bay Rays says. Loudly, repeatedly, over four weeks, this is the message the Rays are sending to their own management, along with the equally topical, "We're still in this thing."
Rays manager Joe Maddon had his own message after his club defeated Detroit, 7-3, on Sunday night. This was the final game of what had turned out to be a 9-2 road trip against the Orioles, Yankees and Tigers.
"I think we're one of the best teams in the American League, period," Maddon said. "I thought that from Day 1. Our record did not reflect that. We did not play that way. But we are now.
"You go through Baltimore, New York and Detroit, looking at the quality of those teams, based on where we had been earlier in the season, and you go 9-2, that speaks a lot of the resiliency of our team.
"Our guys are playing at a very high level, mentally and emotionally, right now. We're not going away. We're in it for the long haul. The math does not look appropriate, but I'm not very good at math."
When the Rays reached the depths of a truly substandard stretch of play in early June, they were 24-42, dead last in the AL East and 15 games out of first place. At that point, the notion of trading Price gained some currency and made some sense. But circumstances have changed since then.
Since that low point, the Rays have gone 17-8.They are now 8 1/2 games out of first and they have moved into fourth place. Their overall direction must still be uphill, but on the plus side, they are playing much better. And no other team in the division has given an indication that it can put on a sustained stretch of superior play and run away with the division.
Not at all coincidentally, Price has played a significant part in the Rays' resurgence. He has eight straight quality starts, the eighth of which came Sunday night against the Tigers. He has been at the top of his considerable form.
Price, the only member of the Rays named to the 2014 AL All-Star team, leads the Major Leagues in strikeouts. Sunday night was not one of his more remarkable performances, but it was still good enough to contain a difficult Detroit lineup.
"I got 26 outs, and I would say at least 15 of them were hit right on the screws," Price said. "They hit me well. They definitely deserved a better fate, and I deserved a worse one, but I'll take it."
Price was helped by some stellar defensive work. This, as Maddon noted, was the kind of play that characterized the Rays in the best of times. There were numerous fine plays behind Price on Sunday night. Center fielder Desmond Jennings had two of the best.
"Man, it was ridiculous the plays that we made," Price said. "I don't know that I've seen as many hard-hit balls turn into outs."
But the bottom line is that the Rays are rising.
"Obviously, we expected to play better baseball at the beginning of the year," Price said. "We expected to play up to this caliber.
"This is the type of baseball we expected to play. I don't know if anybody expected us to hit it the way we are now. We base ourselves off pitching and defense, and we've definitely improved in both of those aspects. We'll take whatever our hitters give us."
On the flip side of the argument about keeping Price was the stunning trade in which the Oakland Athletics obtained two starters, Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, from the Cubs. Samardzija was at the top of the wish list for a lot of pitching-hungry teams, while Hammel appeared to be a reasonable Plan B. The A's, by the numbers, have the best pitching in the AL, but they gave up gold-plated prospects to make sure they maintained that status.
The departure of Samardzija and Hammel from the market would make Price -- who is under the Rays' control through 2015 -- even more valuable in a trade. If available, he would be head and shoulders above any of the other starters likely to be on the market. The Rays could get a big return by trading Price.
But the 25-game recovery by the Rays has at the very least postponed a decision on his future. The picture may be clearer as the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline draws nearer. If the Rays continue their recent play, the standings will reflect it and they could be squarely in the AL East race. A relapse into their early-season blues, and the trade of Price could again be a plausible course of action.
But at the moment, the Rays are playing the way they expected to play. And despite a 41-50 overall record, on this road trip, yes, they could have been seen as one of the best teams in the league. They were playing like the kind of team that would logically hang onto David Price.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.