ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Alex Cobb is set to return to the rotation Thursday, and some view him as a possible catalyst to halt the Tampa Bay Rays’ slide. But the right-hander doesn’t view himself as the potential spark needed to climb back into American League East contention.
In fact, he downplays his influence.
"There’s definitely no weight to that, pressure-wise, for me," Cobb said of his return. "I don’t know what people’s expectations are for any guy to go out there that’s pitching one out of every five days. … I’m going to give everything I have that every fifth day, but there’s a lot more to a rhythm of a team than one guy going every five days."
The reason why many have high expectations for Cobb’s return is understood. His placement on the disabled list with a left oblique strain April 13 became an unpleasant demarcation for the Rays.
From Opening Day to April 12, Tampa Bay pitchers produced a 2.55 ERA, the fourth-best total in baseball. The starting rotation earned a 2.77 ERA, the sixth-best figure in the majors.
Since April 13, Tampa Bay pitchers have produced a 4.74 ERA, the highest in baseball. Starters have pitched just 58.5 percent of the team’s innings, a decline from the 70.4 percent they totaled before Cobb’s injury.
This is a different situation than the one that kept Cobb out for two months last summer. Still, this return is as significant.
He presents trust as arguably the Rays’ most consistent pitcher at the moment, though left-hander David Price owns Tampa Bay’s "ace" tag. Manager Joe Maddon, as he has done with others coming off injury, refused to demand that Cobb "step up" in his comeback with left-hander Cesar Ramos re-assigned to the bullpen.
Still, expectations will be present with Cobb’s return. He knows it, but he doesn’t want too much emphasis placed on them.
"I’m going to give everything I can, and whatever plays off of that is great," said Cobb, who’s 1-1 with a 1.89 ERA and 14 strikeouts in three starts this season. "But one thing I can’t do is go out there and try to win five games at a time. It’s going to be one game at a time. All I can do is execute each and every pitch and try to go as deep as I can and win every single game that I can. But there’s definitely a mind-set of not trying to do too much, for sure."
Call it a strategic mix-up. The Rays had a curious look with their batting order Wednesday in the second game of a three-game series against the Oakland Athletics at Tropicana Field.
Wil Myers and Evan Longoria, both fighting poor hitting spells, were raised in the order to the first and second spots, respectively. Maddon said he wanted both to receive more at-bats to work out of their funks. Myers entered hitless in his last four games, and Longoria had gone without a hit in his last two.
"I wanted to get them as many at-bats as possible to get them going," Maddon said.
Brandon Guyer, meanwhile, was placed in the fourth slot as recognition of his improved hitting of late. In four games from May 15-20, he hit 4 for 11 with one home run and two RBI. Wednesday, Maddon said Guyer was hitting the ball "maybe as good as anybody on this team."
Guyer began Wednesday with a .217 average with one home run and four RBI.
"It’s just helped me feel more comfortable," Guyer said of his upswing.
"I don’t think my numbers really show right now how good I really feel."
HELLICKSON TO THROW LIVE BP
Right-hander Jeremy Hellickson will throw live batting practice Thursday in his continued recovery from arthroscopic surgery on his right elbow.
But the progress report came with hesitation to commit to his previously expected return target of late June. When asked about his timetable, he said, "I don’t know how many rehab starts I’m going to have to make. I don’t even know how many live BPs I’m going to do. I can’t really give you the date right now."
All Hellickson could offer was "I would hope so," when asked if he’ll return before the All-Star break begins July 14.
Hellickson, who underwent surgery in late January, said he has thrown curveballs in his last four or five bullpen sessions with no soreness the next day. He said he threw about 15 curveballs in his most recent session.
"That’s felt great," he said.
— Maddon said Cobb could throw as many as 90-100 pitches Thursday, depending on the game situation. Cobb threw no fewer than 87 in his first three starts this season.
— "Patience" has become a buzzword when discussing the Rays’ offense, or lack thereof. Their 3-0 loss to Oakland on Tuesday was the fifth time they were shut out this season. The five shutouts are the most for the Rays through 46 games since 2004, when there were six.
— Maddon had interesting words to say about embracing the current struggle as a learning opportunity. "I really want them to enjoy the struggle," he said. "I talk to my kids about it all the time. This is when you learn something about yourself. â¦ I think our tendency in this country, in general, is the fact that you give up too soon. For me and for us, I really believe in these guys."
— James Loney entered Wednesday hitting .318 (14 for 44) against left-handed pitching this season. He’s fifth-best among AL lefty batters in the category.