ST. PETERSBURG — It was a long time since Alex Cobb stepped on the mound to face big-league hitters in a big league game — 704 days to be exact. But to Cobb it felt even longer as he struggled Friday to get through the first inning.
"It was almost like a major-league debut feelings again," Cobb said.
He felt the game speed was too quick. He felt home plate looked too small.
But then Logan Forsythe made a nifty throw across his body after fielding a ground ball to get the final out of the first inning, and Cobb felt himself settle down.
"(I) remembered I was working with a big-league defense," Cobb said. "Realized I could pitch to contact and be a little more aggressive. I think the game took a turn from that point."
And so began the final phase of Cobb's comeback from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, which kept him sidelined all of last season and most of this year.
Pitching in a major-league game for the first time since Sept. 28, 2014, Cobb went five innings against the first-place Blue Jays in the Rays' 8-3 victory.
He allowed two first inning runs and four hits overall. He walked one and struck out seven, including the side in the fifth.
"Well," Cobb said, "I'm happy."
Why not? He needed 53 pitches to get through the first two innings and just 31 over the next three. He retired the last 10 batters he faced.
"The performance was outstanding," Rays manager Kevin Cash said.
It was an exciting night for the 12,602 fans inside Tropicana Field. Cobb's return was encouraging. The offense had three home runs, by Logan Morrison, Luke Maile and Brad Miller.
And the Rays (57-76) interrupted the Jays' (76-58) playoff run.
The biggest takeaway was Cobb.
His absence from the rotation was noticeable.
"I think we're all happy to have him back," third baseman Evan Longoria said before the game. "He was a guy who just a bulldog, a guy you love having on your staff. I think he's a guy that a lot of our younger pitchers look up to just because of the way he goes about his business and goes on the mound and competes."
The game could easily have gotten away from Cobb during the 27-pitch first inning when Josh Donaldson doubled off the B-ring catwalk in centerfield and Edwin Encarnacion chased him home with a double. He could have made for a long night for the bullpen with that high pitch count in the first two innings.
But the bulldog showed up and with it, a satisfying return for a pitcher once tabbed to be an opening day starter and the guy who started the Rays' last two playoff wins.
"I was happy in the fact I feel back to that competitive nature on the mound, it wasn't being cautious, thinking about mechanics," Cobb said. "I wasn't thinking about injury possibilities. I was just out there and I wanted to get outs. I felt the groove of the game again, quick innings, get off the field and give the guys a chance to handle the sticks a little bit and get your team back in the lead."