ST. PETERSBURG — Manager Joe Maddon has lauded the "state of starting pitching" in baseball, the Rays having faced some great arms recently.
And it won't get any easier during a three-game series with the Mets that begins tonight at Tropicana Field, with RHP R.A. Dickey (the National League leader in wins) starting Wednesday and LHP Johan Santana on Thursday.
Dickey, 37, is an intriguing story, having rejuvenated his career years back by developing a knuckleball that Maddon said is unique.
"It's been phenomenal," Maddon said. "It's ridiculously hard, and the command of it, too. I admire his catcher — having been a catcher — to catch something so hard that can do all the different things, that's pretty good."
OF Desmond Jennings recalled when Dickey (9-1, 2.44), then with the Mets' Triple-A Buffalo, dominated Triple-A Durham during an April 2010 start. Dickey gave up a leadoff single, then retired the next 27 batters in order.
"Nobody could hit the ball," Jennings said. "He mixes it up, he throws hard, he throws soft. He's good."
So is Santana (3-3, 2.96), who missed last season because of shoulder surgery but looks more like he did in his days with the Twins, when he won two American League Cy Young awards.
"I think he threw a little bit harder back then, and he had that nasty changeup," Maddon said. "He's got a little bit more experience and a little more guile."
ON TARGET: Though the results haven't shown it, RHP Alex Cobb has been happy with how he has felt in the past two starts.
Cobb lost both but pitched well against the Yankees last week, allowing just one run until a three-run eighth. Cobb, who starts tonight, said he has figured out his mechanics a lot better than he did earlier this season. "It's everything," Cobb said. "I'm able to throw any pitch in any count with conviction, and I feel confident with that pitch."
MIND OVER MATTER: C Jose Lobaton said a key for his improved play since coming off the disabled list is his mind-set.
Lobaton has hit safely in four of six games since returning from right shoulder soreness on May 28.
"I'm trying to relax," Lobaton said. "My first time in the big leagues, I know sometimes you want to stay here and I wanted to show a little more. But right now, I'm more like, 'Calm down, I know I can play, know I can hit.' Just keep doing your best every day."
Maddon has praised Lobaton for his blocking ability and defense, though the 27-year-old is trying to cut down on one thing: catcher's interference. The Rays have tied a major-league record with five catcher interference calls this season, and Lobaton has two of them.
Lobaton said Rays roving catching instructor Jamie Nelson told him he was reaching his glove out a bit. Lobaton said it happens when the Rays have a hard-throwing pitcher, such as LHP Jake McGee, on the mound and hitters try to catch up.
"If they're late, and they have a long swing, it's more chances it'll get interference," Lobaton said. "I've got to work on it."
STARRY NIGHT: 3B Evan Longoria remains in third place among AL third baseman in All-Star voting, according to Monday's latest update. CF B.J. Upton has moved up from 16th among outfielders to 13th.
MEDICAL MATTERS: RHP Kyle Farnsworth (right elbow strain) began his rehab assignment with Class A Charlotte on Monday, allowing one hit in one shutout inning. Maddon has said they're going to be cautious with Farnsworth, with no set date for his return.