With backs against the wall, Rays turn to steady Alex Cobb

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — After facing three win-or-be-done games, a five-city, 10-game road trip that spanned 5,631 miles, after losing two at Fenway Park that has placed their season on the brink again, the Tampa Bay Rays will rely on Alex Cobb to extend their October.

An 11-game winner in the regular season, Cobb is the Rays’ best option for this win-or-stay-home situation Monday at Tropicana Field. He has become Mr. Late Season within a young rotation that needs his season’s best effort with the Boston Red Sox leading this American League Division Series 2-0.

Matt Moore and David Price were knocked around in rare moments of vulnerability under the Green Monster, so here comes Cobb, who faces a lineup that outscored the Rays a combined 19-6 at Fenway Park.

It’s surreal to think Tampa Bay’s season rests with Cobb’s right arm again. He transformed into one of the majors’ most remarkable stories, after he rose from a horrific concussion sustained June 15 to become one of the game’s most consistent pitchers, seemingly in a flash.

He has won his past four starts. The most impressive of the stretch happened Wednesday in the AL wild-card victory over the Cleveland Indians, when he struck out five batters and allowed eight hits in 6 2/3 innings to silence a charged crowd at Progressive Field.

On Monday, Cobb will turn 26 years old. He has aged in front of the Rays’ eyes this summer. By far, this has been his best year in two full seasons with them. That development is a credit to him and his focus. He has shown he deserves to be mentioned among the best within a core of maturing starters that includes Moore, Chris Archer and Jeremy Hellickson.

“This time around has been a lot more calm,” Cobb said Sunday when asked about his mind-set before Game 3. “Once you go through something once, you know what to expect. You’re able to wrap your head around it a little better with the time beforehand. So I know what to expect tomorrow night. I know how I’m going to feel going into the game, the concentration level and the adrenaline level. A lot more calm, collected this time going into the game.”

Mostly, the Rays have witnessed a calm and collected Cobb since he returned Aug. 15 in a victory over the Seattle Mariners. He has lasted longer than six innings in five of 10 starts since coming back. He has allowed no more than three earned runs in all but one of those appearances, including posting shutouts in his past two.

In 22 regular-season starts, Cobb had a 2.76 ERA, compared with the 4.03 he earned in 23 starts last season. He earned 28 more strikeouts (134), allowed 10 fewer hits (120) and surrendered 17 fewer earned runs (44) than a year ago.

His growth is far from complete. But for someone still learning who he is at this level, he has made leaps in his progress the past two months.

“This guy is pitching probably better than he’s ever pitched,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “Fastball velocity has been up. Actually, he’s been throwing the ball hard with great movement like he normally has. … Love to see him come out there tomorrow night with the whole package working for him, because he’s very difficult when that occurs.”

It remains to be seen, however, if Cobb will be an antidote for the Red Sox’s potent lineup. Boston closed the regular season as the league’s leader in runs scored (853), RBI (819) and on-base percentage (.349). The efficiency is no surprise to the Rays, who lost 12 of 19 regular-season games to manager John Farrell’s team, their first losing season against Boston since 2007.

Like other members of the Rays’ rotation, Cobb’s regular-season returns against the AL East champions weren’t stellar. He went 0-1 with a 5.16 ERA in four starts, and Tampa Bay lost all of those games.

Consider the contrast: Cobb started against one other team four times this season — the New York Yankees — and he finished those matchups with a 3-0 record and a 1.23 ERA. The Red Sox drew 10 walks against him, the only team to earn double-digit walks on him all year. No other team had more than the Yankees’ and Baltimore Orioles’ six.

But there remains an X-factor involved with Cobb’s appearance Monday. Like left-hander David Price’s strong return from his own DL stint, Cobb has enjoyed a similar uptick. The reason for this is elusive, but the parallel is interesting and can’t be ignored.

“I’ve never taken this game for granted. But you lose sight of some things sometimes when you’re just controlling what you have to do night-in and night-out,” Cobb said. “So you start to lose perspective sometimes. But sometimes you’ve got to get reeled back in a little bit and appreciate and look around and just be thankful for everything you have.”

Teammates have noticed a renewed appreciation for this life. Cobb has been among the Rays’ most consistent starters all season, a welcomed result after Hellickson’s spotty year. But the post-injury version of him is sharper, dangerous, more aware of the gifts presented to him.

“Alex has been one of the best starters in the game when he’s healthy,” Rays infielder/outfielder Kelly Johnson said. “If he could have those starts back, I think you would see some numbers, and his name would be in consideration for some of those Cy Young-type talks.”

“When he made his first start back, I texted him, because … it hit me how close to death he was,” Archer said. “I mean, an inch here or an inch there and then to come out and be so dominant and be so poised and be so calm and to do so well right after that — he’s pitching better now than he was before. So it shows his character.”

The Rays, their playoff lives now perilous, need that character more than ever. After the whiplash events of the past two weeks, after the scoreboard watching and highs and lows of a wild ride that spanned two countries and two time zones, Cobb is their last line of defense again.

He’s calm, poised and prepared with his season on the edge.

Like there was ever a question.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.