ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Alex Cobb has felt this enjoyment before. The right-hander’s current comfort is similar to the rise he lived in dicing hitters late last season, when he emerged as the Tampa Bay Rays’ most dependable starter.
The enjoyment has been hard to recapture for much of this year. It’s a sign of how difficult achieving consistency can be on the mound, where the difference between the elites and the ones who are near the level can be razor thin.
For Cobb, the season’s early months proved frustrating in his chase to grow from a standout to possibly the Rays’ future ace. It wasn’t that he was bad, but there were moments that made you wonder where the old 2013 magic had gone. There was the left oblique strain sustained April 12 that kept him out until May 22. There was the 4.63 ERA in two May starts and the 5.35 ERA in six June appearances. There was the mechanical problem in his delivery that prevented his off-speed pitches from breaking as much as he wanted.
But in time, the classic Cobb has returned. The proof was seen last Wednesday in St. Louis, where he pitched seven shutout innings and allowed five hits. The proof was seen Tuesday night at Tropicana Field, where he toyed with the Milwaukee Brewers by allowing just one run and three hits with a season-high 12 strikeouts in eight innings during the Rays’ 5-1 victory.
"It does feel like I’m starting to get in that groove again, and it does feel just fun out there," Cobb said. "It was fun last year. All five guys get on a groove, and you show up to the ballpark, and you know the starter is going to give you a chance to win that night. You do anything that you can do not to be the guy that guys are not looking forward to playing behind you. Right now, everybody is clicking, and it will make for a nice run."
Everything that happens now with the Rays must be considered with the backdrop of ace left-hander David Price possibly being traded. Should Tampa Bay decide to move Price before the non-waiver trade deadline at 4 p.m. Thursday, Cobb will be the logical heir to Price’s place within the Rays’ rotation.
Cobb’s 7-6 record with a 3.54 ERA and 92 strikeouts in 15 starts this season is a sign that there’s room to grow. But his recent ascent, which helped the Rays improve to 29-12 since June 11 after Tuesday, is a hint that he has the mental stamina to rebound when challenges come.
Awareness that growth is a career-long journey and understanding that mental strength is required to fight through the inevitable dips along the way are necessary ingredients for a future ace. Whenever the time for Cobb comes, whether his opportunity arrives later this week or on a day more distant in the future, he has shown he has the tools to succeed.
"That was equally as impressive as his game in St. Louis," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "He had great stuff. The changeup was falling off the table. He was throwing strikes, a couple curves, primarily fastball, changeup. He was outstanding."
The same could be said for Cobb’s finish to July. Tuesday, he recorded double-digit strikeouts for the second consecutive start after earning 10 against the Cardinals. He reached at least 100 pitches in his last two appearances after reaching the mark just twice in his first 14. He closes the month 3-0 with a 2.59 ERA in five starts, an impressive rebound from the season-worst 5.35 ERA he posted in six June appearances.
The Brewers were the latest foe to be baffled, and from the start Tuesday, it was easy to tell this would be a long night for them. They did little aside from Cobb’s spotty top of the fifth inning, when Milwaukee earned its lone run when Scooter Gennett scored Aramis Ramirez on a sacrifice fly to center field.
Late Tuesday, Cobb stood near his locker in the Rays clubhouse, relaxed and pleased. The old feeling was back. So was the confidence that it could continue.
"The game as a whole is similar to the way I view pitching," Cobb said. "Before, when I was struggling mechanically, you’re just trying too hard to make things work. And then when everything comes together, it’s just, ‘Go play.’ It’s just, ‘Let’s go do it.’ It’s got that vibe right now."