Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Big game exactly where Rays' Cobb wants to be

CLEVELAND

The most pivotal moments of Alex Cobb's career have come not on a pitching mound but on a couch.

A couch. That's where Cobb was two years ago. With the Rays in the playoffs, he was recovering from a bizarre surgery when doctors had to yank out one of his ribs to relieve a blood clot.

A couch. That's where Cobb was this summer. He watched the Rays go on a winning tear in between his dizziness, nausea, fatigue and splitting headaches caused by a line drive smashing off his skull.

The physical pain was nothing compared to the helplessness.

"Just the feeling of being left out was hard to describe," Cobb said. "It's a terrible feeling that you don't want to have again."

Someday, Cobb told himself as he lay there, he wouldn't be left out. Someday he would be the player his team turns to.

Someday is today.

No couch this time. Cobb will be where he belongs — on the mound, starting for the Rays in tonight's one-game wild-card showdown against the Indians.

This is all he ever wanted.

"I think any competitor growing up dreams of that moment, wants the ball in that moment," Cobb said. "It's the biggest stage. It's the only game on, so everybody will be watching. It's a Game 7 mentality. Win or go home, and I'm comfortable in those situations."

Comfortable, yet psychotic. That's how Cobb describes the look on his face when pitches.

"I look spaced out because I'm only thinking of one thing," Cobb said. "Maybe people will think I'm not 100 percent there."

He almost wasn't here.

Back on June 15, he was struck in the head by a liner traveling an estimated 102 mph. And though he put up a brave front back then, the truth came out Tuesday. He admitted that he had doubts. He did wonder if he would ever be the same, even after the headaches faded and the dizziness went away.

His girlfriend, Kelly Reynolds, wanted him to quit, even suggesting that he get his baseball fix by coaching Little League. When he stepped on the Tropicana Field mound, two months to the day after he left the same mound on a stretcher, he had no idea what to expect.

"The feeling I had when I first came back was the what ifs," Cobb said. "Am I still going to be able to pitch?"

Here's the thing: he has been better after the injury than he was before it.

"I don't know why," Cobb said. "Maybe I got two extra months of rest."

Before he was hit, he was 6-2 with a 3.01 ERA in 13 starts. That's pretty good.

In the nine starts since his return, he is 5-1 with a 2.41 ERA. That's outstanding.

Indians manager Terry Francona said he is, arguably, the Rays' best pitcher.

I'll go a step further and say he is the Rays' best pitcher, despite David Price's gutsy performance Monday in Texas. In fact, Cobb has been so good that it wouldn't have been surprising if the Rays had turned to him instead of Price tonight, had the Rays avoided Monday's tiebreaker game.

"This guy is one of the best pitchers in either league," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "I, we, have all the faith, all the confidence in the world with him pitching (tonight) for a variety of different reasons. And No. 1 is just the competitive nature. It's truly different. It's in an elite category."

Cobb isn't sure what Maddon means. Doesn't everybody want to win? Doesn't everybody embrace the big moments? Isn't every major-leaguer competitive?

Maddon compares Cobb to former Rays pitcher James Shields, the bulldog who set the take-no-prisoners personality of the Rays staff. That's a compliment for a pitcher of any age, but particularly for one who turns just 26 next week.

Yet this is what is so endearing about Cobb: He's confident, but he doesn't fake bravado.

He can't wait to pitch, but he admits that he has never pitched in a game like this.

He welcomes the moment, but he also allows that he isn't sure how things will go.

Normally, Cobb gets fired up the day of a game. But the adrenaline started pumping the exact moment the Rays wrapped up the victory in Texas late Monday night.

Now he has to figure out how to act like the biggest game of his life is just another baseball game, even though he knows it's not just another baseball game.

"I'll have to constantly keep reminding myself of that," Cobb said. "I'm not sure how I'm going to react."

One thing is for darn sure. It will be more fun than lying on a couch.

Tom Jones can be reached at [email protected]

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