ST. PETERSBURG — When right-hander Alex Cobb found out last week that his start would get moved up a day so he could pitch against the first-place Yankees on Sunday afternoon, he knew it would be a big game.
And after Cobb watched the Rays lose the first two games of the series with New York, including a crushing 11-inning defeat Saturday night, he acknowledged it "made it a little more of a must-win."
Cobb definitely delivered, continuing his "groove" by shutting down the Yankees in a spectacular 8⅓-inning performance, lifting the Rays to a 8-3 win in front of 24,159 at Tropicana Field.
"He was wonderful," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "He was that good. … I honestly believe that's almost as good as you're going to see him."
Cobb (6-2) said that pitching after left-hander Matt Moore — who is off to an 8-0 start — has motivated him to try to "keep up" with his good buddy and teammate. And with Cobb wrapping up his fourth win in his past five starts and leading the staff with 6⅔ innings per outing, Maddon can sense the confidence building.
"It's a nice streak me and him are going on right now," Cobb said of Moore. "Hopefully, we can keep it up."
Cobb kept the Yankees (30-19) off-balance, retiring 18 of the first 19 hitters he faced. He said the key was his fastball command, which made the rest of his pitches better. And the fact that the Rays (25-24) scored seven runs in the first six innings against Yankees ace lefty CC Sabathia — thanks to a scrappy second-inning rally and two-run homers by Sean Rodriguez and James Loney — "made it a lot easier" to pitch aggressively.
But, mostly, Cobb said he "loves" big games, believing it helps him focus. And it has showed against the Yankees, against whom he is 2-0 with a 1.08 ERA in two starts this season after allowing two runs and no walks Sunday.
"He's really good," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "The young man knows how to pitch. He locates extremely well. He's got one of the best changes — or split-change, whatever you want to call it — in the game."
The Yankees got their first hit off Cobb on a controversial infield single by Jayson Nix in the third. It appeared shortstop Yunel Escobar had made a fine play to throw him out from deep in the hole, but first-base umpire James Hoye said Nix beat it. Maddon came out to argue, saying he "felt strongly" Nix was "significantly out."
But Cobb didn't dwell on the call, and Robinson Cano made it a moot point with a no-doubt single to center to start the seventh. Cobb was more upset with himself that he couldn't finish the game, giving up a solo homer to Brett Gardner and a single to Cano to start the ninth and getting pulled after 113 pitches. The Rays' struggling bullpen, once again, made it interesting, with lefty Cesar Ramos walking two and allowing a two-run double, forcing Maddon — reluctantly — to summon Joel Peralta for the final two outs of Cobb's masterpiece.
"Unbelievable," Rodriguez said of Cobb. "He's been good all year. He's been as consistent as you can find on the mound next to anybody in the big leagues, except maybe Matt."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.