Alex Cobb’s gem rescues Rays vs. Marlins

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — So much was working against

the Tampa Bay Rays heading into Sunday’s rubber match against the Miami

Marlins.

The biggest thing going, it seemed, was the large “Popa-Palooza”

Father’s Day crowd and triple-concert bill at the Trop slated for after the

game. Yet there didn’t appear to be much pop anywhere else for the Rays before

their 3-0 victory.

They had just suffered a disappointing 15-inning loss to Miami on Saturday,

taxing the bullpen and sending players home tired and drained in the wee hours

Sunday morning.

Their lineup was missing slugger Matt Joyce, who fell ill Sunday morning with

flu-like symptoms. Starting left fielder and leadoff man Desmond Jennings was

getting a much-needed rest. And the designated hitter in the improvised lineup

that manager Joe Maddon posted in the clubhouse? Elliot Johnson.

Enough said.

Considering they were going up against Marlins ace Josh Johnson, things didn’t

exactly look promising for the Rays as they set out to avoid a costly series

loss to their intrastate rival on the verge of a road series starting Tuesday

in Washington.

Enter starting pitcher Alex Cobb, who wasn’t feeling so hot either after a

terrible bullpen session.

But in his sixth start of the season since getting recalled from Triple-A Durham,

the second-year Rays right-hander stepped up in a big way to pave the way for a

crucial victory in front of 33,810.

Cobb started strong, getting Jose Reyes on a called third strike, and never

wavered. Cobb went seven innings, blanking the Marlins on two hits with 10

strikeouts and one walk. It was precisely the kind of performance Tampa Bay

needed to erase any lingering pain of their marathon loss from the night before.

Not only did Cobb end his three-game losing streak, he matched his career high

for innings pitched and set a new one in strikeouts. In the process, he became

only the fifth Rays pitcher to log 10 or more K’s and allow two or fewer hits

in a start (joining Scott Kazmir in 2006, James Shields in 2007, Matt Garza in

2009 and Jeff Niemann in 2011).

“I felt great,” Cobb said. “When I first started throwing my

bullpen, I felt horrible. I thought it was going to be a short night. Sometimes

that’s when you throw the best because that’s when you are focusing on every

pitch. It turned out to be good today.”

What also felt good for Cobb was pitching on Father’s Day with his dad, Rick,

looking on proudly in the stands.

“That was really cool,” Cobb said. “During the game, I wasn’t

thinking about it too much. I was reflecting on it more before the game and

after the game. … It brings up a lot of good memories and, when you look at it

in perspective, it’s probably something really cool for him to watch me on that

stage and on this day. It was really rewarding.”

Cobb’s effort capped a rewarding series for Rays pitchers as well. They allowed

only four runs in the three-game series including just one earned run for a

spectacular ERA of 0.27. It was also the sixth shutout for the Rays this

season, including their second combined one in the last three days.

“(Cobb had) great fastball command, but today was the uncanny ability (to

throw a) first-pitch curveball strike,” Maddon said. “It was really

good. You put that in the hitter’s head and combine that with the great changeup

with the fastball where he wants it. And that last inning he pitched, he had 92

(mph) for the first time, so he kept getting better.”

Maddon decided to pull Cobb after he reached 100 pitches. Joel Peralta pitched a

1-2-3 eighth and Fernando Rodney did the same in the ninth, striking out two

and earning his 19th save in 20 opportunities. Rodney has allowed just one

earned run at home this season, good for an 0.49 ERA.

“A hundred pitches has kind of been (Cobb’s) Waterloo,” Maddon said.

“Let’s get him out after seven. But he was really, really good.”

After Cobb set the tone with a dominant first inning, center fielder B.J. Upton

did the same for the offense. Batting at the top of the order for the first

time this season, he hit a leadoff homer in the bottom of the first the sixth

of his career and fifth homer of the season.

“I didn’t even look at (the lineup),” Upton said. “I just knew I

was leading off. I looked up, saw that I was leading off and said alright.

That’s just Joe, man. We know he’s going to shuffle the lineup and, in reality,

you are only hitting in that spot at the beginning of the game so it really

doesn’t matter. … We have a good ballclub. Everyone here will tell you that it

doesn’t matter where you are hitting, they are going to keep the same

approach.”

The Rays wasted several scoring chances in the early going, but padded their

lead in the sixth when Elliot Johnson walked with two outs, stole second and scored

on a single to center by third baseman Drew Sutton.

In the seventh, right fielder Ben Zobrist picked up his

second hit of the game — the seventh time in eight games he’s collected

multiple hits. His single to left scored Upton, who had reached first and

advanced to second on a fielding error by Gabby Sanchez. Three runs were more

than the Rays would need to improve to 14-3 on “getaway days.”

The win improved their record to 37-29, still third in the AL East behind the

streaking first-place Yankees (40-25) and two games behind the second-place

Orioles (39-27).  This week, the Rays visit

two NL East teams who just suffered sweeps the first-place Nationals (38-26) and

the last-place Phillies (31-37).

The Rays came into the game Sunday having experienced a full range of emotions

in the first two games of the series.

In the opener Friday night, they awoke from the stupor that marked their three consecutive

losses to the Mets. The team that couldn’t seem to hit or pitch during the

sweep suddenly did both in droves. Their 11-0 win featured more runs than the

combined nine they scored against New York, which had outscored them 22-9 all

told.

Tampa Bay had gone 133 home games without scoring 10 runs or more. It was the

longest such streak in the majors since the Houston Astros went 268 games

between 1980-’84.  The the last time an

AL team went that long was Toronto’s 165-game stretch in 1980-82.

The pitching was pretty good too on Friday. Rookie Matt Moore allowed only one

hit through seven innings in his best outing of the season and the bullpen worked

two hitless and scoreless innings to close out the much-needed win. It was the

first time a Rays starter held an opposing team to one-hit or less since Matt

Garza no-hit the Tigers July 26, 2010. After a shaking start to the season,

Moore won his third consecutive decision to improve to 4-5 with a 4.16 ERA.

The revived offense was paced by Zobrist’s hot bat. Barely a week after his

batting average stood at .199 at Yankee Stadium, he continued his one-man assault

against the Marlins with his fifth consecutive multiple-hit game – including

his ninth homer of the year.  That raised his batting average to .235 with

a six-game hitting streak (12-for-22 with eight RBI and six walks) including

a 9-for-14 outburst with three homers and six RBI against Miami.

The befuddled Marlins, meanwhile, dropped their fourth game in as many 2012

outings against Tampa Bay and their ninth in 10 games overall.

But then came Saturday night’s 15-inning marathon and the disheartening 4-3

loss to Miami. Once again, the Rays fell victim to uncharacteristic poor

defense with three errors that led to three Marlins runs undercutting James

Shields’ bid for his eighth win. He departed with the game tied 3-3 after 7 2/3

innings, having yielded eight hits while fanning five and walking one.

He pitched well enough to win, and the Rays battled back to tie the game after

falling behind 3-0 after two innings. But it was a game Tampa Bay could have

won well before extra innings if not for a defense that committed its 55th,

56th and 57th errors of the season in 65 games – including its 16th multi-error

showing.

A year ago at this point, the Rays had committed

only 31 errors with three multi-error games. They didn’t commit their 57th

error in 2011 until their 128th game on Aug. 24.

Sean Rodriguez made up for his throwing error with a seventh-inning triple that

tied the score 3-all. And the Rays bullpen did an admirable job in relief of

Shields, throwing 6 2/3 scoreless innings thanks to good work by Peralta,

Rodney, Jake McGee, Wade Davis and Burke Badenhop.

Newly recalled Brandon Gomes retired the Marlins in the 14th with no trouble.

But Gomes gave up a one-out double in the 15th to former Rays outfielder Justin

Ruggiano. One batter later, Gomes was burned for what turned out to be the game

winner — a triple by Scott Cousins, who celebrated his call-up from Triple-A New

Orleans with three hits in the game.

That snapped Tampa Bay’s eight-game win streak over the Marlins and

substantially raised the stakes for Sunday’s showdown. But the Rays came into

the game relaxed and had no trouble shaking off the effects of the late-night

loss.

“Just watch our guys,” Maddon said. “Cobber comes out with a

really good first inning. … And then B.J. steps up, homer. We had a really good

energy about us today, under the circumstances. I felt it was going to be a

really good game all along. And Alex really permitted that to happen.”

NOTES: Gomes was optioned back to Durham following Sunday’s win. Maddon

praised the work Gomes did during his brief trip back to the Rays. “(He’s)

throwing the ball really well,” Maddon said. “This is a baseball

moment based on need right now.” The Rays need a position player as they

prepare for more interleague play and will announce a corresponding move by

Tuesday. Maddon, however, stressed that neither Evan Longoria nor Jeff

Keppinger were ready yet to be recalled from their rehab assignments with

Durham.