Rays' Alex Cobb looks like his old self in strong, winning 2017 debut (w/video)

Alex Cobb has a stellar, winning start to open his season: 5⅔ innings, 4 hits, 1 run, 4 strikeouts, 1 walk.
Alex Cobb has a stellar, winning start to open his season: 5⅔ innings, 4 hits, 1 run, 4 strikeouts, 1 walk.
Published April 6, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — This was not the most high-stakes game Alex Cobb pitched. That had to be the 2013 American League wild-card win over the Indians.

This was not the most emotional game Alex Cobb pitched. That had to be his return last Sept. 2 from the May 2015 Tommy John surgery.

This was not the most challenging game Alex Cobb pitched. That had to be in August 2013 when he returned to the Trop mound two months after being carted off having been hit in the head by a line drive.

But Wednesday was one of the most important games Alex Cobb pitched.

That is because it was the first game of the rest of his career.

An up-and-down extended rehab assignment, unceremonious five-start September return, uncertain spring-long search for past mechanics were all behind him.

Now it was time for Cobb to just go and pitch.

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And that he did quite well.

Cobb allowed one run and four hits over 5⅔ solid innings against the Yankees in a 4-1 victory, earning his first W at the Trop since Aug. 21, 2014, when he beat former teammate David Price and his-then Detroit Tigers 1-0.

"Really special," manager Kevin Cash said. "Obviously for him, for us. His teammates were really pumped. Coming out taking the ball from him, a lot of good messages were said. When the inning ended, (Evan Longoria) comes in and gives him a big hug. Had to be pretty special for those guys that were together for a long time."

Cobb was in command and control, striking out four and walking one, 90 pitches total, one big mistake on a homer to Jacoby Ellsbury.

"I thought it was a battle," Cobb said. "Definitely the best I've been on the mound since I've been back from surgery.

"It's not to the point where I'd like to end up being eventually, but it's definitely good enough to go out there and compete with."

He threw his fastball where he wanted it to go and his changeup where the Yankees didn't want to see it, getting them to swing and miss seven times, three on strike threes.

He looked, well, a lot like Alex Cobb, which was a most welcome sight.

"I thought the fastball command was probably what was most impressive," Cash said. "It was great to see him get the swing-and-miss on the changeups, but I thought the fastball command helped allow that to happen."

Asked Tuesday about people questioning his readiness, Cobb replied, "I'd say just watch and find out, I guess."

And he showed 'em.

"I think we all kind of felt with whatever he was showing in spring training, he was probably going to turn it on a little bit," Cash said. "And he did today for sure."

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This is a huge year for Cobb, 29, one way or two others. Free agency awaits at the end of the season, so barring the unlikely event that the Rays make a preemptive strike to re-sign him at market value, he will either be traded to a contender at midseason (with the Cubs and Dodgers already among those interested) or walk away at the end in search of the big bucks deal he was negotiating on at the time of his injury.

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And he got things off to a good start.

The five starts Cobb made at the end of last season turned out to be little more than token appearances, the physical experience of throwing 22 more innings at the highest level and the mental reward of getting back to the big leagues after months of mind-numbing rehab and some discouraging moments during his minor-league buildup.

And the six starts he made this spring were more an exercise in seeking and refining his already-complex mechanics, trying to break bad habits he picked up during his rehab guarding against another injury than any measure of performance.

Cobb skipping his penultimate start of the spring due to lower-back tightness only raised the anxiety level, but a solid outing March 31 in Clearwater — where two years earlier he hurt the elbow— allayed those concerns.

Which is what made Wednesday so important.

And so good.