ST. PETERSBURG — What made Saturday's first start of the season different for Alex Cobb was treating it the same as any other.
He woke up around 10 in his Clearwater house, borrowed one of his buddies' cars for the drive in, stopped at a Subway for lunch (turkey/bacon) and pulled into Lot 10 at Tropicana Field feeling not only that he had been there before but that he belonged.
Then he went out and showed it, delivering exactly the kind of performance that can make the Rays' loss of Jeff Niemann more tolerable in a 5-2 interleague win over the Braves.
"There wasn't that adrenaline rush that I had in previous call-ups," Cobb said. "It was more just a normal, routine day."
His teammates and manager used more colorful terms as Cobb, the 24-year-old summoned from Triple A to fill the hole in the rotation, delivered seven strong innings before a crowd of 27,433.
"Cobb was phenomenal," outfielder Matt Joyce said.
"Awesome," said catcher Chris Gimenez.
"A pretty impressive performance," manager Joe Maddon said.
It was a pretty solid day overall for the Rays (25-16), as Joyce delivered the big hit with a grand slam, the defense was sharp, and the finishing duo of Joel Peralta and Fernando Rodney was spot on, Rodney earning his 13th straight save this season and 100th of his career.
"More of a formulaic kind of a win," Maddon said.
The Rays expected a calm and confident showing from Cobb, who made nine starts over two stints in 2011 and had a one-day stay in the bullpen earlier this season. He didn't begin particularly well, allowing a single and a walk to open the first (bailed out by a double play), then three singles and a sac fly to open the second, leading to a 2-0 deficit.
He said it was more a matter of nitpicking than nerves; Maddon suggested he was more concerned with the potent Atlanta lineup than working from his own strengths.
But Cobb settled into a nice groove, navigating a third that started with an error by second baseman Will Rhymes and ended with a great diving play. Cobb took it from there, allowing a two-out walk and a single in the fourth, then retiring his last 10 without a ball leaving the infield.
One change was Gimenez urging Cobb to be more aggressive in throwing more fastballs, which paid off as he needed only 37 pitches for his final three innings. (Overall, he allowed only five balls hit in the air and got 18 outs on strikeouts or ground balls.)
The other was Joyce flipping the score from 2-0 Braves to 4-2 Rays with his third-inning blast to center. "That," Cobb said, "settled me down the most."
Joyce was thrilled to hit his third career slam, and in a key spot. And pleased it was relatively uneventful, at least compared to his last homer May 9 in Yankee Stadium, when he twisted his left ankle on the swing, fell in the box and limped around the bases.
"I worked on the landing a little bit," he said. "That one didn't hurt as much as the last one."
With Niemann out until at least mid July, Cobb will have an extended run to prove his own belief that he belongs in the majors. Gimenez joked that with Niemann's size 16 shoes, Cobb "could fit two feet in one of Niemann's shoes" to fill them.
Cobb is ready for any challenge. "I think knowing what I did last year was helping me a lot to calm down," he said, "and knowing that if I throw the way I'm capable of that I'd be fine."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]