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  1. Rays

Jones: Alex Cobb proves again why he's Rays' stopper, no matter how long he's here (w/ video)

ST. PETERSBURG

If a team hopes to hang around the pennant race, it better have an ace. A stopper. A pitcher it can count on every fifth day to stop the bleeding, keep a winning streak going or flat-out win a game that a team flat-out needs to win.

Well, the Rays — a team that certainly looks as if it is going to hang around the rest of the season — has such a pitcher. His name is Alex Cobb. And the guy was lights-out again on Wednesday.

Just like he has been for the past month.

In a game the Rays really, really, really needed to win before heading out on a tough eight-game road trip, Cobb pitched seven brilliant innings, giving up only four hits and one run while striking out six in a 5-1 victory over the Orioles.

"One of the best pitchers in the league," Orioles manager Buck Sho­walter said.

Try finding a better pitcher in the majors right now. In his past nine starts, Cobb is 5-1 with a 2.24 ERA. Manager Kevin Cash said he can't remember the last time Cobb had a bad game.

"I have no idea what we'd do without him," Cash said.

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Interesting that Cash would say that, because the Rays might soon find out what it's like to be without him.

Cobb is a free agent after the season. Though it's unlikely, it's not inconceivable the Rays could trade Cobb in the next few days, a thought that has even crossed the pitcher's mind here and there.

"Those are thoughts that you might have when you're falling asleep at night," Cobb said. "It's not something you want to think about going into a game. You don't want add pressure to your outing because of that. But I realize that it's a possibility."

If it was up to Cobb, he would be here for the rest of the season. And beyond.

But let's face facts. Someone is going to offer him a ton of money, and that price tag might be too rich for the Rays.

Still, he doesn't hesitate when asked if he would like to stay in Tampa Bay.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Alex Cobb proving too valuable to trade if Rays are serious about playoffs.

"Oh, man, are you kidding me?" Cobb said. "I grew up as a kid coming here. Drafted by them when I was 18. So many life changes have gone on since then. There has been a lot going on, and this organization turns into a family at that point."

Cobb, his baseball family and his actual family have been through so much the past few years:

Surgery to remove a rib and relieve a career-threatening blood clot in 2011. The horrifying night in 2013 when he was hit in the head by a screaming liner. Then Tommy John surgery in 2015 and the grueling road to recovery.

All those things sabotaged Cobb's expected ascension to the top of the rotation and his arrival among the best pitchers in the game. You started to wonder if the run of bad luck would ever end. You started to wonder if Cobb would ever be the ace he was supposed to be or just an unreliable, inconsistent, injury-prone starter.

Now, finally, it feels as if Cobb has arrived, though he feels like he has another level to get to.

"Incredible," outfielder Steven Souza Jr. said when asked what it's like to play behind Cobb the past few weeks. "It's amazing. He battles. He just keeps us going. When we see that fight, it makes us want to fight for him. I'm so proud of him. It has just been awesome to watch him come back."

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And it has been awesome for the Rays to have him back, especially Wednesday. It was a game the Rays desperately needed to win. That alone had Cobb pumped up.

"Absolutely, man," he said. "The competitive side of you, you relish those opportunities. You know the team is looking for you to step up and deliver an outing. It gives you an added amount of adrenaline going out there. And a little bit added focus. Being a playoff-caliber team, every game is a playoff game. You're going to be locked in, and it's just fun."

He locked in and kept the Rays in the game until their bats woke up in the sixth. By the time he departed after seven strong innings, the Rays were ahead 3-1.

Cobb turns 30 in October and, assuming his injuries and bad luck are behind him, has the chance to be one of baseball's elite pitchers over the next four or five years. Will he spend those years in a Rays uniform?

First things first. For now, fans just hope he stays in a Rays uniform for the next two months. And then deep into October.

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