ST. PETERSBURG — Alex Cobb has done everything asked of him during the 15-plus months of recovery and rehab from Tommy John elbow surgery, but that ends tonight when he faces the Blue Jays in his eagerly awaited return.
While the narrative is for Cobb to take the Trop mound just happy to be there and pleased to get in as much work as possible over the final month to be better prepared for 2017, the right-hander knows himself well enough to admit that isn't totally realistic.
"My perspective is at 7:10 to go out and win the ball game," he said.
Obviously there has to be a balance, and Cobb understands that, even as much of a competitive cuss as he is, with a strong disdain for the "It's okay"/participation trophy mentality that seems increasingly common in the Rays' and other clubhouses.
Plus, pitching coach Jim Hickey and manager Kevin Cash will be watching closely, planning to limit Cobb to 80-90 pitches, making sure, in his first big-league start since Sept. 28, 2014 — 704 days — he doesn't try to do too much.
As if the rough results Cobb had during much of his eight-start rehab assignment (0-3, 6.65) weren't warning enough of the challenge, Cobb has the vivid recall of what buddy Matt Moore went through returning in July 2015 from the same surgery.
Moore failed so much initially he was sent back to the minors, then returned strong in September and regained form enough this year to be a playoff-push acquisition by the Giants.
"I think the view of Tommy John surgery among players in general, fans and media is you get the surgery, you rehab and you come back better and stronger," Cobb, 28, said. "You see the happy ending.
"Watching Matt, I saw the real struggle of the surgery and knew that was going to be a reality going into it. You always think it's going to be easier for you, you've got it figured out. But going through it, you realize what he was going through, and the struggle that he had to get back.
"So I know that struggle is real. But I also know you keep working on it and you can have the success he's having right now."
Moore said Thursday that Cobb's mental game will be as important as the velocity on fastball and break on his changeup.
"Especially with the rehab starts not going as well as you hope for, it's important to continue to believe and trust yourself," Moore said. "The more and more he gets out there, he will lose himself in the moment of competition, and it'll be easier to break away from the mechanical thoughts and settle in."
Cobb was hurt in spring training 2015 and had the surgery mid May, so he was confident he would be back at some point this season. But that didn't make the path free of pain, doubts or frustration.
"It wasn't like it was smooth," Cobb said. "Some people just pick up a ball and they're like, 'Okay, the pain's gone.' With me, it was like, this kind of hurts a little more than before I got the surgery."
Understandably, the first throws at each stage of his rehab were tentative, and though Cobb says the elbow is now fully healthy and of zero concern, there may be lingering effects limiting his success.
"I remember being scared at first, and that's something I've been kind of fighting," he said. "I formed a lot of guarded, protective bad habits."
The final rehab outing was his best, and Cobb, with a tendon from his right wrist now holding his right elbow together, is eager for the five-start test that begins tonight, with his fiancee, dad and other friends in the stands to witness.
The Rays know to "temper our expectations" based on Moore's experience, Cash said. "We look at this last month as solely for Alex to do as much as he can to feel good about himself going into the offseason, get his innings up and remain healthy.
Cobb appreciates that perspective, that it's just early prep to be fully ready for 2017 (his final season before free agency), but he admits it won't mean much if he gets roughed up tonight by Jose Bautista or the other Blue Jays sluggers.
"I'll be as mad as when I was healthy, trust me," Cobb said. "There will be no change in that aspect. I'll have a lot of people tell me, 'It's okay.' And I'll tell them to beat it."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected] Follow @ TBTimes_Rays.