ST. PETERSBURG — In the 17 months since he first felt something amiss in his right arm that afternoon in Clearwater, in the 15-plus months since the Tommy John surgery to repair the tear in his elbow, in the nearly two months since he started pitching, and not particularly well, in minor-league games, Alex Cobb has remained singularly focused on getting back on the mound to start again for the Rays.
"I have a vision of when I'm going to get back, and I know it will happen," Cobb said Wednesday. "I've worked too hard, I've done too much, I feel too good now for it not to happen."
That return is finally in sight.
Cobb, 28, is scheduled to throw a bullpen session today at the Trop, then make an eighth and final rehab start Saturday for Triple-A Durham. He hopes it goes well, as much for reassurance as anything, but he plans, nevertheless, to rejoin the Rays in Boston, then make his long-awaited return next weekend, Sept. 2 or 3, at the Trop against the Blue Jays.
"Sink or swim time," Cobb said. "Go out there and make do with what you've got. I don't think you are ever fully comfortable to get back into the big leagues after an almost two-year layoff."
The last time Cobb pitched in a regular-season game was Sept. 28, 2014, at Cleveland, when Joe Maddon was still managing the Rays and Kevin Cash was in the opposing bullpen as a coach for the Indians.
Cobb came into the next spring as the leader of the David Price-less staff. He got named to make his first opening day start and was in serious negotiations over a long-term, mega-millions deal with the Rays when he took the mound for his third start, on St. Patty's Day, and felt something go wrong, launching him on this odyssey.
Getting through the rehab schedule is a physical test, but getting back to the majors is a mental challenge. There were plenty of times when Cobb had to fight off doubts and concerns, had to ask former teammate Matt Moore or other Tommy John veterans for advice and counsel.
Even in the past couple of weeks, when he would feel extremely good in his bullpen sessions then pitch relatively poorly in games, the negative thoughts crept back in.
"Sure, you have doubts throughout," Cobb said. "After those games, you're like, 'Dang, will I ever figure it out?' "
For the most part he has had his usual 90-93 mph fastball and a decent curve, but his out pitch, the vicious changeup, has been missing. So not only is he trying to build arm strength (his highest pitch total is 86), but he's readjusting to how to pitch effectively (having gone no more than four innings), how to transfer progress in workouts to the games and how to get past thinking too much about every pitch.
"You have to get your mind out of the way first," Cobb said, "and get to the point where physically, I need to go do this and do it."
Cobb said the Rays gave him the choice, and he opted to make one more start in the minors, joking he'd have much better numbers (0-3, 7.64 over 172/3 innings) if he "could just have the batters come to me in the bullpen," and hoping to "at least get one smooth inning under my belt."
He is also working on convincing himself it's more important just to make the starts in September than how he does.
"I'm super excited," Cobb said. "It was tough to buy into, but the more I thought about — the competitor in me wanted to come back and be at the top of the game like where I left off. But now that I've talked to so many people and I've seen what other people have gone through and I've experienced it firsthand, I'm so relieved just to be healthy, and just to go out there and get my feet wet and get an offseason under my belt and get ready for next year.
"Results, I think, are what you fear mostly. And once you get that out of your mind, it's a relief almost."
The Rays are most eager to welcome Cobb back.
"I haven't been so fortunate to see him pitch in person, but you hear what all the staff says about him, what our front office and what his teammates say about him, he's the type of leader that we're looking forward to getting," Cash said.
"Obviously coming back from injury is difficult and you have to monitor innings. But he's a guy that goes out there and gives (you) a bunch of innings. He's efficient. He just does everything right."
As much as they see Cobb as fronting their rotation, Cash also is eager to have him front and center, providing much-needed leadership in their clubhouse as Chris Archer had been thrust into that role.
"I've told Alex this, we've missed it," Cash said. "We've missed it for two years. Coming in (as manager), he's a guy a lot of people point out when you're trying to learn things about the team. A lot of people point at Alex. I know it's difficult to do that and be that same guy when you're on the DL. We're going to welcome him back when he gets here and hope he kind of picks up where he left off."
Having come this far, Cobb, obviously, is also eager.
As for that vision of what it's going to be like?
"It's just walking off the mound where I don't feel like I just got beat up out there, just a smooth inning," Cobb said. "I envision just being happy. Just like, okay, I figured it out. And with a little relief."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.