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Cobb earning respect from beneath the radar

ALDS Game 3 starter has shown poise in high-pressure situations

ST. PETERSBURG -- Before Game 1 of the American League Division Series, a reporter informed Game 2 starter David Price of a recent post on The poll asked 12 Major Leaguers a simple question: "If you had to win one game, who would you want on the mound?"

Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw received half the votes and Price got two, making him the only other pitcher to get more than one. Price was appreciative, but not necessarily in agreement.

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"That's pretty cool," Price said, smiling. "I would take Alex Cobb, though."

Cobb has earned that kind of respect from his teammates, even if he might fly under the national radar, compared with someone like Price. Cobb showed why his last time out, when he tossed 6 2/3 scoreless innings on Wednesday against the Indians in the AL Wild Card Game.

Now the Rays will be turning to the right-hander for their biggest game of the year, another must-win affair with their season hanging in the balance. With the Rays down, 2-0, in their best-of-five ALDS vs. the Red Sox, Cobb will take the hill in Game 3 at Tropicana Field on Monday at 6 p.m. ET on TBS.

"It's going to be the same mindset: It's win or go home," Cobb said Sunday. "So I don't want to be the one sending us home. I'm going to give everything I've got out there."

Cobb, set to pitch on his 26th birthday, said he learned a lot from his postseason debut against the Indians, giving up eight hits while battling his nerves in front of a raucous crowd at Progressive Field. Mostly, he realized that he can't get too amped up or he'll start leaving pitches up in the zone; that's why his signature changeup was admittedly "nonexistent for most of the day."

But Cobb stranded five runners in scoring position and kept the Indians off the board, displaying the bulldog mentality he's become known for and showing why there's nobody else the Rays would rather send to the mound with their season on the line.

"This guy has been there before. And he knows he can do it," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "I know I feel good about it. I think our whole team feels good about it, that Cobb can do this."

Maddon said on Saturday that he expects to see a different Cobb on Monday, the one who won each of his last three regular-season starts while posting a 1.16 ERA against the Rangers, Orioles and Yankees. That would be the same Cobb who inspired comparisons with former Rays ace James Shields after striking out 12 in 8 1/3 innings against the Orioles on Sept. 21.

That would also be the same Cobb who bounced back as though nothing had happened after suffering a concussion that sidelined him for nearly two months, the same Cobb whose ERA would have ranked fourth in the AL had he thrown enough innings to qualify.

"I really think you're going to see a greater complement of all his pitches working on Monday," Maddon said. "I think he'll have all of his stuff back. I just think he might have been over-boogie-ing it a little bit the other night. ... So you get him back home, you get him comfortable, he's going to pitch a really good game."

Most of Cobb's games this season fit that description, as he's allowed three earned runs or fewer in 19 of his 22 starts. It's hard to remember at this point -- and much harder to believe -- that Cobb went to Spring Training unsure if he'd even have a spot in the rotation. Then all he did was go on to become arguably the Rays' most consistent starter, going 11-3 with a 2.76 ERA in his first full Major League season.

"He's been nails the whole year. Obviously, you're not going to go perfect and throw shutouts all the time, but Alex has been one of the best starters in the game when he's healthy," Rays left fielder/second baseman Kelly Johnson said. "I think if he could have some of those starts back, you would see some numbers and his name would be in consideration for some of that Cy Young-type talk.

"I think we've pretty much know what we're going to get from him every time out. We hope we get to see that again. Obviously, being at home and playing with your back against the wall in a sudden-death situation is a big deal. It's a lot of pressure. But I think he's certainly shown that he can handle it."

The native of Boston has struggled against the Red Sox, going 2-2 with a 4.19 ERA in seven career starts. The Rays are just 2-5 in those games, and they lost all four of Cobb's starts against Boston this season. He saw firsthand Friday and Saturday just how dangerous Boston's lineup can be, as it roughed up Matt Moore and Price.

Cobb admitted there's no blueprint on how to pitch to the Red Sox; if there was, somebody would have used it by now. Instead, he just has to do what he did in Cleveland and what he's done all season: Pitch his game and believe it's good enough.

Because there's nobody else the Rays would rather rely on with their season on the line. Just ask Price.

Adam Berry is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry.

Tampa Bay Rays, Alex Cobb