ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — His entrance was familiar, unchanged, each moment part of a return to normalcy. Alex Cobb emerged from the dugout to begin his night, skipped after a few strides and hopped over the first-base line, a bounce in his step as he returned to what makes him comfortable.
Cheers lifted and cowbells rattled as Cobb, pitching for the Tampa Bay Rays on Thursday for the first time since sustaining a mild concussion June 15, gripped the ball in his right hand and dug into Tropicana Field’s mound. Two months ago, nothing seemed certain as he grimaced after a 102.4-mph line drive off the bat of the Kansas City Royals’ Eric Hosmer struck his right ear.
Two months ago, when he left this building strapped to a stretcher, there was little known. There were only questions.
Mercifully, on this night, the time for questions had passed. The build-up to Cobb’s return against the Seattle Mariners, in which he allowed one run and three hits with six strikeouts in five innings during the Rays’ 7-1 victory, became an event in itself: The bullpen sessions, the live batting practice, the three rehab starts with Class A Charlotte, the recovery from a blister on his right index finger, two consecutive days of holding court with reporters earlier this week that included unguarded honesty.
“I’m tired of hearing it,” Cobb said Tuesday. “I’m tired of seeing it. So hopefully on Thursday, we’ll get it all behind me.”
That time came in his first pitch back, a 92-mph fastball to Brad Miller that was hooked into the stands behind the third-base line. Now, Cobb and his team can move on.
“I just want it to be back to normal,” he said afterward. “I want to stop talking about it. I want to stop getting attention for anything other than what’s going on the field. I think that we can do that now that this game is past us.”
Cobb’s return will be recalled as a milestone moment in this Rays season. Before his absence, he grew into one of Tampa Bay’s most consistent staff members. He was 6-2 in 13 starts. His 3.01 ERA and .233 opponents’ batting average both ranked 11th-best in the American League.
Simply, the Rays are better with him. Look no further than starting pitching to find a reason for Tampa Bay’s recent funk. The area is one where the Rays must improve, no questions asked, if they have visions of overtaking the Boston Red Sox in the AL East.
“I didn’t know how settled he was going to be,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “I felt confident that he was going to be healthy and fine and well. I really wasn’t concerned about flinching. I really was not. I was more concerned with command and him being in control of his emotions, which he was.”
Proof of what Cobb’s return means for the Rays is found in numbers: Before Thursday, Rays starters failed to finish five innings six times in their last 11 games (starting July 31) and compiled a 5.65 ERA in the span. Meanwhile, in 32 previous games (from June 23-July 30), they pitched at least five innings in each and earned seven complete games, compiling a major-league-best 2.21 ERA in the process.
Beyond stats, however, an emotional lift was involved with Cobb’s return. There is a clear bond among members of this rotation.
Having one regular face gone was like a rock band on tour without a lead guitarist. Part of the music was missing.
“Just not being together,” Rays right-hander Jeremy Hellickson said of the biggest aspect missed with Cobb gone. “Arch (Chris Archer) stepped in for him, and he has done an amazing job. It’s pretty nice to see him out there again.”
Cobb’s return represents a stabilizing moment for the rotation. Mostly, David Price has pitched at an elite level since returning from a strained left triceps July 2. But others such as Archer and Hellickson have faltered of late, halting momentum the Rays enjoyed last month.
Tampa Bay awaits Matt Moore’s return from left elbow soreness. When he comes back, the rotation could look like this: Price, Hellickson, Moore, Cobb and Archer. (Under this scenario, right-hander Roberto Hernandez would be moved to the bullpen.)
At that point, the Rays’ rotation will be primed for an AL East push. Then, they will be all-in for what lies ahead.
“He’s a good kid, and he’s a good teammate,” Rays designated hitter Luke Scott said. “I was there on the field when that happened. A very scary incident. It could have been a whole lot worse. Just seeing him happy and to see that he’s back — it’s great, it’s important.”
The moment was one Rick Cobb was eager to see. He was present at Tropicana Field the day his son was hit, sitting near Section 206, when the eerie thud of the ball smacking Alex’s head could be heard as a cold, lifeless sound. He rode in the ambulance with Alex in the short drive east to Bayfront Medical Center. Alex stayed conscious the entire time.
Two months later, on the morning of Alex’s start, those scary hours for Rick and his family were distant, like a faded nightmare. This, too, was a sign of progress: Dialogue had turned to Alex’s pitching, back to the familiar.
“It has been great,” Rick told FOX Sports Florida. “The medical people did a great job with him. He seemed to get better day-by-day and week-by-week. He kept improving. He did everything he was supposed to do, and it’s just very satisfying to see. … I think there’s enough to think about on the mound, especially when you’ve been up pitching your whole life. (The incident) really only happened once in a million times.
“I think he’ll be fine.”
Late Thursday, it seemed so, with Cobb’s return to normalcy complete. He stood near his locker in a grey T-shirt and jeans, his hands on his hips with slight stubble on his chin, as a winner again.
About three hours earlier, a new season for him began. That date, June 15, was past. This was a new night, a step forward, and the future is his focus now.
“There were a lot of moments, unexpected moments,” Cobb said of his return.
“It has been something other people can relate to — ups and downs in life and being able to come back out and not let them get you down. There were a lot of different moments tonight that highlighted that. It was a different experience. But it was fun.”