Rays' Cobb has health, confidence

PORT CHARLOTTE — The pair of 2-inch-or-so scars between Alex Cobb's neck and right shoulder are daily reminders of the physical challenges he faced in regaining both the past form and promising future that were suddenly jeopardized by the unexpected and slightly complicated surgery.

And when he is at his St. Petersburg-area house, so, too, is the customized box sitting on the mantle displaying the pinky-sized piece of his top right rib that was removed.

But it was the mental aspect of recovering from the August 2011 procedure, which also included removal of a blood clot from his arm and a nasty bout with pancreatitis, that was more haunting.

Doubts would dart in and out of his head for months, even when he was back in the majors by late May, back winning. It wasn't until late last season, when he followed up one of his worst big-league outings with possibly his best, that he felt complete again.

And that is the biggest reason for his confidence going into this season, when Cobb is being counted on heavily to help the Rays fill the void left by the trade of James Shields.

"I think this year, both mentally and physically, I'm as sharp as I've ever been," Cobb, 25, said. "I feel like it is up to me whether I'm going to have a good game or a bad game."

There's a bit of an ornery side to Cobb, which manager Joe Maddon humorously attributes to him having the fiery personality and stubbornness of a redhead, and Cobb finds that somewhat amusing since he considers his hair more of a dirty blond.

But the point is valid, and Cobb carries that to the mound now with what seems a simple approach.

"I definitely go out there like it's a fight every time," he said. "And I don't want to get embarrassed. I get (ticked) whenever I give up a hit or a walk."

A few lockers away in the Rays clubhouse, Cy Young Award winner David Price smiles. He remembers his own bouts with lacking confidence on the way to stardom, and he likes what he hears and sees from Cobb.

"He's got really good stuff, and he's putting the mental side with that now, and that's very key," Price said. "To me, that's the biggest part of baseball, the mental part. And that's something that he's doing a lot better right now, you can tell. …

"You've got to take it personal. That's the one thing, if I'm going to talk to a young pitcher, you've got to take it personally. That's what I do. … And once you can learn to not only be able to take it personally but hone that energy in and use it toward the positive, and not get so mad to the point it breaks up your concentration or you're spending too much energy in the dugout because you're (ticked) off, you really learn how to use it for the good."

The Rays are confident that Cobb is ready, putting him in the rotation based on what they saw during his 11-9, 4.03 season, while leaving Jeff Niemann and free-agent signee Roberto Hernandez to battle for the fifth spot.

Cobb didn't have much confidence, or anything, when he first started working his way back last spring, "throwing fricking 82-85" mph and, despite all the assurances of a full recovery from the slew of experts, wondering, "What if I'm that one guy it doesn't happen to? So that doubt creeps back into your mind."

The first six weeks at Triple-A Durham didn't go much better, eight starts in which he won only once. "The ball just wasn't coming out like I remembered, I couldn't locate like I remembered," he said.

He got called up after Niemann broke his leg in mid May and beat the Braves in his first start, but "that doubt was still in the back of my mind in full force" and it showed as he had some bad games along with some good.

It wasn't until the end of July, approaching the one-year anniversary of the surgery, that he finally felt right. And when he followed up the Aug. 18 embarrassment in Anaheim — eight runs and 12 hits in 22/3 innings — with his first complete-game shutout (vs. Oakland), he knew for sure.

"Things started becoming easier, I started being able to do what I wanted, toy with other things, set up hitters again, and I started pitching again," he said. "That's when I realized I could do it again."

Rays' Cobb has health, confidence 03/20/13 [Last modified: Thursday, March 21, 2013 12:33am]

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