ST. PETERSBURG — RHP Alex Cobb figured he'd get called up to fill in for injured RHP Jeff Niemann, packing and preparing all week as if he would be starting tonight against the Braves.
But it still felt good for Cobb, 24, to get the news Thursday afternoon, validating manager Joe Maddon's message to him after optioning the pitcher to Triple A in spring training.
"When I got sent down, Joe told me I'd be a big part of the season this year," Cobb said. "You never want to get called up due to injury, but it makes me realize that they do have trust me in me and believe that I can fill the spot okay."
Cobb appeared the logical choice over right-handed prospect Chris Archer, 23, who has only 11 starts above Double A. Cobb was a big part of the Rays' success last year, going 3-2 with a 3.42 ERA in nine starts before season-ending surgery in August to remove a blood clot and part of a rib.
It appears Cobb could be with the Rays for an extended stay, with Niemann out until mid July with a broken leg. RHP Josh Lueke was optioned to Triple-A Durham to make room for him.
"I know one thing: He believes he belongs here," Maddon said. "And with that, I think you're going to see a very calm, normal performance, like he's been here all season. I feel very good about Alex being able to step in and do a wonderful job for us."
Cobb said he feels close to where he was before his surgery, and though he was 1-4 with a 4.14 ERA in Durham, he was encouraged by his last outing, when he mixed his pitches well in five shutout innings Monday. Cobb arrived in the bay area Thursday night, slept at his place in Clearwater and hoped to settle in.
"I still have to pitch well, but as long as I pitch well, then I think I should have a decent amount of time up here," he said.
IN THE SWING: Though INF Will Rhymes said his right forearm was still a little swollen, he was available to pinch-hit and run during Friday's game against the Braves, two days after getting hit by a pitch and then passing out at first base. Rhymes said the team plans to be cautious because he felt fatigued after swinging in the batting cage Friday afternoon. "I'm getting closer," he said. "I want to get out there, obviously, but we've got to be smart about it."
CLASSY MOVE: Braves 3B Chipper Jones, in his final season and first trip to Tropicana Field since 2006, received a standing ovation before his first at-bat.
But Jones, who went 1-for-3 with a single, might have played his last game at the Trop. He left in the seventh with a left calf bruise, suffered when CF B.J. Upton hit a hard grounder off him in the third. He's day to day.
"I think it's safe to say my career in Tampa is over," Jones said. "If you're standing 85 feet from home plate and somebody hits a rocket at you, you better get a glove on it, and I didn't."
WELCOME BACK: Maddon said Lueke looked "fantastic" in a 1-2-3 ninth in which he struck out two hitters, showing poise and a mid 90s fastball.
Lueke, acquired from the Mariners in the offseason, had given up seven runs and nine hits in his previous two appearances.
Lueke, who expected to get sent down because the Rays needed to call up Cobb, said he pitched carefree and aggressive, adding it was nice to "leave a good taste in their mouth this time instead of a bad one."
"We assured him, if you keep doing that, I promise you you'll pitch here for a long time," Maddon said.
LINING UP: SS Sean Rodriguez was to have the day off, but he pinch-hit for Matt Joyce in the eighth, was hit by a pitch and later scored. LF Rich Thompson made his second consecutive start.
Checking Matsui: DH/OF Hideki Matsui played leftfield for Triple-A Durham and went 0-for-3 in his fourth game with the Bulls.