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Cobb shows familiar form in first start since '14

ST. PETERSBURG -- Alex Cobb returned Friday night, giving Rays fans ample opportunity to enjoy the moment and look forward to what the team might resemble with another ace back in the rotation.

The right-hander made his long-awaited return from Tommy John surgery against the Blue Jays at Tropicana Field, making his first Major League start since Sept. 28, 2014, in Cleveland. Cobb allowed two runs on four hits while walking one and striking out seven in five innings en route to a no-decision in the Rays' 8-3 win over the Blue Jays.

"To see Alex Cobb out there and the way his teammates responded, and just the performance was just outstanding," Rays manager Kevin Cash said.

Expectations for Cobb were tempered after Rays fans witnessed Matt Moore's return from Tommy John surgery in 2015 to mixed results. Even Cash could be counted among those not knowing what to expect when he noted that he wanted "nothing more than health" from Cobb.

Cobb quickly showed something from the old Alex Cobb when he faced Jose Bautista and caught the Blue Jays' leadoff batter looking at strike three on an 85-mph changeup to begin the game.

A little drama followed when the Blue Jays scored twice -- the first of the runs got teed up when a sure flyout to center fielder Kevin Kiermaier hit the B-ring and turned into a ground-rule double for Josh Donaldson. Edwin Encarnacion followed with an RBI double and Russell Martin added a two-out RBI single.

Further drama came as Cobb's pitch count rose. Through two innings, he had thrown 52 pitches, and the chances of him even finishing another inning seemed remote. That's when something clicked into place for Cobb, who had been earmarked to be the team's No. 1 starter in 2015 before he suffered the injury that put him on the shelf after a Grapefruit League start against the Phillies.

"It was more like, when I started it was almost like debut feelings again, Major League debut," Cobb said. "Things were speeding up on me. Home plate looked big. Once I got past that first inning and took a second, settled down a little bit. And part of that was seeing the pitch count. I realized I needed to start filling the zone up a little bit. Pitching to contact."

Cobb used seven pitches in the third and nine in the fourth before striking out the side using 16 pitches in the fifth to finish his outing. Cobb retired the final 10 batters he faced before leaving to an ovation accompanied by Bachman-Turner Overdrive's "Takin' Care of Business."

Catcher Luke Maile said location was the big difference in Cobb's final three innings.

"I was really impressed with the way the ball came out," Maile said. "I've never caught him before. He's got a lot behind his fastball. His changeup is as good as anybody's in terms of his arm action. I'd say the biggest difference was just a little better location."

Cobb said he was happiest about feeling like he found "that competitive nature on the mound."

"I wasn't being cautious, I wasn't thinking about my mechanics," Cobb said. "I wasn't thinking about injury possibilities.

"I was just out there and wanted to get outs. I felt the groove of the game again. Quick innings. Get off the field. Give the guys a chance to handle the sticks a little bit and try to get your team back in the lead."

Cobb allowed that his stuff is not exactly where he wants it to be.

"But it's to the point where I can at least go out there and compete," he said. "I think it's a case of getting out of your own way. The difficulty of trying to fight yourself and another team is practically impossible out there. Once I started getting out of my own way and focusing on one of the best lineups in baseball, things went a little bit smoother."

What's next for Cobb? Based on what's been seen from other pitchers returning from Tommy John surgery, it's ludicrous to think the remainder of the 2016 season will be all smooth sailing. But it's easy to project positive vibes about Cobb moving forward. And that's a cause for Rays fans to celebrate.

Bill Chastain has covered the Rays for since 2005.
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