ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — There were so many things for Alex Cobb to think about, he didn’t have time to worry about it happening again.
Four months ago, a line drive off the bat of Kansas City third baseman Eric Hosmer left him crumpled on the mound, face in the dirt, hands clutching the sides of his head. If he was going to return to the mound as quickly as possible, he couldn’t let fear be a distraction.
“There was such a process into it that I wasn’t able to stop and think about how difficult this is or just the possibility of not being out there,” said Cobb. “I was just so focused on getting better day to day and working on strengthening my body back up to get back out there that it really didn’t sink in to how difficult it was to get back out there.
“It’s something you look back on and you appreciate the process that you went through. But during it I never sat down and said this is so hard I can’t do it. It was just, what do I need to do to get back at it.”
The only traces of apprehension were fleeting. The same thing happened to J.A. Happ, Juan Nicasio, David Huff, Joe Martinez, Mike Mussina, and Billy Wagner. Those line drives affected all of them differently.
Over the two months he spent sidelined, Cobb wanted to make sure there were no lingering effects, physically or mentally.
“The mental side of it, being worried about getting hit again — I had my ways to figure out how to try to get that out of my mind-set — and fortunately I was able to,” said Cobb, who will start Game 3 of the American League Division Series against the Red Sox Monday night at Tropicana Field. “I know a lot of guys that have been hit still have those thoughts creeping in their mind when they make a specific pitch or whatnot. I’m very happy that I’ve been able to kind of get those thoughts out of my mind.”
Since returning in August, Cobb has shown no signs of shell shock. Over his last nine regular-season starts, he went 5-1 with a 2.41 ERA and 58 strikeouts. With his team’s back against the wall for a third straight game, Cobb’s 6⅔ scoreless innings against the Indians in the wild-card game last Wednesday were testament to his resilience.
“Alex, he’s a tough guy,” said Rays manager Joe Maddon. “He really is. That was awful. I mean, you talk about — I could just see it, the line drive hitting him. We had no idea what to expect when he went out to the mound. And a couple of months later this guy is pitching probably better than he’s ever pitched.
“Fastball velocity has been up, actually, he’s been throwing the ball hard with great movement like he normally has. Curveball has been outstanding. He’s got this exceptional changeup. He was missing the changeup a little bit in Cleveland, it just wasn’t quite right. But he still has other great stuff to get by. Love to see him come out there [Monday night] with the whole package working for him, because he’s very difficult when that occurs.”
Now, with the Rays on the brink yet again down two games to none in the best-of-five series with the Red Sox, Cobb believes not only will he be the same pitcher he was before the injury, but that he might just be better.
“Any time you get any sort of injury in this game the worst thoughts start going through your head, especially with the type of injury I sustained this season,” Cobb said. “Obviously all those thoughts crept into my mind, [while] watching us play on TV every night.
“I was extremely happy we were doing well, but at the same time I had an empty feeling of wanting to be back out there. I knew I would get back, I’d give everything I had to get back. And when I did get back I wouldn’t stop appreciating it moreso than I had before.
“I’ve never taken this game for granted. But you lose sight of some things sometimes when you’re just controlling what you have to do night in and night out. So you start to lose perspective sometimes. But sometimes you’ve got to get reeled back in a little bit and appreciate and look around and just be thankful for everything you have.”
After fumbling Game 1, the Rays were supremely confident in their ace David Price, but watched him suffer through the worst postseason performance of his career. They have reason to be just as confident in Cobb, who was unbeaten in his 13 starts at Tropicana Field, going 7-0 with a 2.81 ERA.
“Cobb has such a winner’s attitude, he has that bulldog mind-set,” said Rays third baseman Evan Longoria. “The thing I like about him the most is the fact that it doesn’t matter if it’s the middle of the season or if it’s a playoff game, he’s taken that same mind-set into the game.
“He comes with that same competitive fire every day and he really has a desire to win; to go out there and help the team. I don’t think there will be any change in that, so I think he’ll be as composed yet as driven to go out there and perform.”
The day will have added meaning for Cobb, who will celebrate his 26th birthday Monday. His mentality, he said, will be the same. “It’s going to be the same mind-set,” Cobb said. “It’s win or go home. So I don’t want to be the one sending us home. I’m going to give everything I’ve got out there.”