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Published Apr. 25, 2013

His night was done now. The ball had sneaked into rightfield, and the best reliever in baseball last year was warm, and the meat of the Yankees lineup was coming to the plate.

So Alex Cobb snarled at himself, competitor that he is, and he waited for Joe Maddon's long journey from the dugout.

And then the darnedest thing happened.

The crowd started to boo, long and loud. Fernando Rodney, the Rays' terrific reliever, was on his way to put out the fire, and the crowd was booing. Maddon, the two-time American League manager of the year, was making a move, and the crowd was booing.

If you want to sum up just how good Cobb was on Wednesday night, this pretty much wraps it up. Eight-and-a-third innings weren't enough. A hundred and six pitches weren't enough. This crowd was in love with the way Cobb competed, and they didn't want to see it end. They wanted to go all the way with Cobb, the fiery redheaded pitcher from nowhere.

And why not? For most of the night, they saw Cobb cut it and peck at it, move it and keep the Yankees on their heels. He was a surgeon. His fastball had more movement on it than it did velocity, and his curve was sharp and his change was deadly. He allowed three hits and no runs, and he struck out seven, and to the Yankees bats, he might as well have been the riddle of the Sphinx.

More and more, this is the image of Cobb. Since last August, he is 10-2. If you are looking for an impersonation of James Shields, the great departed one, then this one was spot-on.

Who would have believed it? Cobb was never the chosen one, never the next big thing. When Rays fans talked about tomorrow, no one ever promised it to Alex Cobb.

David Price? By comparison, Price arrived in the big leagues with buglers and confetti. He was going to be a very, very big deal long before he turned into one.

Jeremy Hellickson? People were counting the days before Hellickson arrived. Every time he threw a ball into the catcher's mitt, the sound of it echoed all the way to St. Petersburg.

Matt Moore? Everyone knew Moore's name long before his arrival. For Moore, success was just a matter of time.

But Cobb? For the longest time, no one saw anything special with Cobb. Scouts would talk to him after seasons in which he had been pretty good, and he would wonder if his stuff just wouldn't work on the major-league level.

As it turns out, that said a lot more about the scouts than it did Cobb.

No one saw a night like this, when Cobb took the mound and dared the opponent to knock him off of it, nights when he set his teeth and shut off all the oxygen in the Trop. No one saw the will. No one saw the fire.

Well, look at him now.

That's Alex Cobb, the Rays' stealth star.

Who would have believed it? Since being drafted in the fourth round by the Rays in 2006, Cobb spent pieces of seven seasons in the minors, and he never won as many as 10 games. He didn't blow people away with his fastball. So when the hype machine was plugged in, it talked about Price, or Hellickson, or Moore, or Chris Archer.

But Cobb? For the longest time, no one saw anything special with Cobb. Not even the large chip on his shoulder.

Maybe that's where the drive comes. Maybe it comes from those tennis matches with his dad, when the father would get ticked off, too.

"I never met anyone who said they liked to lose," Cobb said.

And so Cobb competes. He gives up a hit, and the agony is all over his face. He gives up a run, and you might think that doctors have told him they're going in to take a piece of another rib.

"Every at-bat, I'm trying to beat the hitter," Cobb explains. "When he beats me, it bothers me."

Fans can sense that. They can tell how much it means to a pitcher to do well. Perhaps that is why they pulled so hard for Cobb, too.

He is a confident pitcher. Know that about Cobb, too. He still doesn't have a meteor for a fastball. But he can move it around, and he can keep it in the park. Go back to last July, and Cobb has allowed three earned runs or fewer in 17 of his last 18 starts. Fans kind of like numbers like those, too.

Does that remind you of anyone? Shields, perhaps. Shields battled, too. He survived without great velocity. He ate up innings. And he won.

Cobb has a lot of those things.

Oh, and Joe? Take him out at your own risk.