ST. PETERSBURG — As horrible as right-hander Alex Cobb said he felt in his pregame bullpen session, he thought he was in for a short start Sunday.
"I wasn't locating any fastballs, my changeup was up, and didn't even come close to my curveball," he said. "Thankfully, it made me zero in more than anything else, and it turned out to be a good thing."
It turned into one of the best outings of Cobb's career as he threw seven two-hit innings to lift the Rays to a 3-0 win over the Marlins in front of a Father's Day crowd of 33,810 at Tropicana Field.
Cobb struck out a career-high 10 in the series-clinching victory, keeping the Rays (37-29) within 3½ games of the red-hot Yankees in the American League East.
"He was outstanding," first baseman Carlos Peña said.
"Spectacular," manager Joe Maddon said.
What made Cobb's outing more special was that his dad, Rick, came from Vero Beach to be in the stands, and he joined him for a celebratory dinner.
"It brings up a lot of good memories, and you look at his perspective, it's probably something pretty cool for him to be able to watch on that stage and on that day," Cobb said. "It was really rewarding."
Cobb had watched most of the Rays' frustrating 4-3, 15-inning loss the night before from his bed, saying he saw the bullpen battle and "figured the least I could do was … save their arms a little bit."
Maddon said Cobb did just that with an "uncanny ability" to throw a first-pitch curveball for a strike, combining it with a changeup that B.J. Upton said was the best he has seen from the right-hander all year.
"He has very good stuff — very good," Marlins DH Greg Dobbs said. "He's a good pitcher."
Maddon said Upton "set the tone" with his leadoff home run off Marlins ace Josh Johnson.
"I just took advantage of his mistake," Upton said.
The Rays had a makeshift lineup after Matt Joyce was a late scratch due to flu-like symptoms. But Elliot Johnson, who wasn't originally scheduled to play, helped spark a rally in the sixth with a two-out walk before stealing second and scoring on Drew Sutton's single. Ben Zobrist added an RBI single later, scoring a recently resurgent Peña, and that was more than enough for Cobb.
Cobb (3-3) said it was a "big step in the right direction" in learning how to pitch when he doesn't have his best stuff. He improved his focus and execution with two outs, walking just one and allowing only a leadoff single in the third and a two-out single in the seventh.
Cobb capped a strong weekend of pitching by the Rays, who held the Marlins to one earned run in the three games. And Miami struck out 14 times Sunday, sparking the free pizza promotion for the third straight day.
"The way we played out there, they're going to run out of dough and cheese," Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen said.
Cobb was pulled after seven innings and 100 pitches, with Joel Peralta and Fernando Rodney continuing their impressive seasons with two combined shutout innings.
Cobb said it was the "right move" considering he has struggled late in starts recently. He still got to light up the Captain Morgan sign in the team's postgame celebration, done by the star of the win.
Said Maddon: "He was really, really good."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.