ST. PETERSBURG — For the second time in less than a week, right-hander Alex Cobb holds the Rays' fate in his hands.
It was Cobb who catapulted Tampa Bay into the American League Division Series with a gutsy win in Wednesday's wild-card game in Cleveland. And, tonight, Cobb is charged with helping the Rays stave off elimination, down 0-2 in the best-of-five series with the Red Sox heading into Game 3 at the Trop.
For Cobb, who turns 26 today, his best birthday gift would be to give his team tomorrow.
"It's going to be the same mind-set — it's win or go home," Cobb said. "I don't want to be the one sending us home. I'm going to give everything I've got out there."
Third baseman Evan Longoria, 28 today, shares the same birthday and similar sentiments as his teammates that "you couldn't ask for a better guy than Cobb on the mound" in the pivotal game. Longoria praised Cobb's "bulldog mentality" and "winner's attitude."
"You can see it in his eyes; he wants the ball (tonight)," fellow starter Jeremy Hellickson said. "He wants these big games."
And Cobb (11-3, 2.76 ERA) has been at his best against the best, going 6-1 with a 1.63 ERA in nine starts against 2012 playoff teams.
"He's been really, really good for us," Longoria said. "That gives everybody confidence, that gives us life."
Red Sox manager John Farrell said Cobb has been remarkable considering what he has been through, missing 50 games following a concussion after being hit by a line drive June 15. Since Cobb's mid-August return, he has gone 5-1 with a 2.41 ERA, becoming the Rays' most consistent pitcher.
"He's been nails the whole year," Kelly Johnson said. "You're not going to go perfect and pitch shutouts all the time, but Alex has been one of the best starters in the game when he's healthy. And if he can have those starts back, I think you'd see some numbers and his name would be in consideration for some of those Cy Young-type talk."
Cobb's shining moment came Wednesday, when he battled out of several jams to pitch 6⅔ scoreless innings in a 4-0 win over the Indians in his first postseason start. He said he learned a lot from that experience, from how to take velocity off pitches when he's "amped up" to mentally preparing for the moment.
"This time around has been a lot more calm," he said. "Once you go through something before, you know what to expect. … I know how I'm going to feel going into the game, the concentration level and the adrenaline level."
Cobb knows he has his hands full. Boston scored a combined 19 runs in the first two games of the series and has given Cobb trouble; he's 0-1, 5.16 in four starts this year, including allowing six runs in the first inning June 10 at the Trop.
But Cobb enters tonight's start confident, having gone 7-0 in 13 home starts. He believes the key will be executing his versatile repertoire, which includes a changeup and spike curve.
"He's got good stuff," Red Sox slugger David Ortiz said. "I watched him pitch the other day in Cleveland and his stuff was … it was on."
The Rays hope Cobb's "on" tonight.