CLEVELAND -- The lights have come on for Alex Cobb.
Often perceived as the "other guy" in the Rays' highly-touted rotation, the 25-year-old right-hander ended the season as the best pitcher on the staff.
Tampa Bay is now banking on Cobb to continue what David Price started Monday night when he pitched a complete-game masterpiece against the Rangers in the tiebreaker. Price's work lifted Tampa Bay into the playoffs. The Rays now hope that Cobb can pitch them into the AL Division Series against the Red Sox.
Cobb finished the season with an 11-3 mark and a 2.76 ERA in 22 starts. Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey said that much of Cobb's success comes from the fact he has "swing-and-miss" stuff. Like all successful pitchers, Cobb's effectiveness begins with a fastball he can locate. That makes his secondary pitches even tougher to hit, like the knuckle-curve he's been using to fool hitters this season.
Cobb adopted the knuckle-curve just over a year ago, after learning it from former Rays James Shields and Wade Davis.
"Pretty much the whole staff was throwing the knuckle-curve," Cobb said. "So I started throwing it. You're really just throwing it with one finger. It's gotten to the point where I'm able to throw it a lot harder. Before it was 77, 79 [mph]. Now it's 79, 82 sometimes."
Cobb noted that the success of the pitch is due in large part to the angle in which it comes out of his hand.
"It comes out like a fastball, straight," Cobb said. "It doesn't pop up. So it looks like my fastball or changeup. It comes out of the same plane. So maybe I'm just getting more confident with it. And with more confidence in a pitch comes more drive throughout the pitch and more ways to explore how to throw the pitch in different counts."
Through his pitching career, Cobb has dealt with adversity both on and off the field.
Cobb's mother, Lindsay Miller-Cobb, died unexpectedly from a stroke at the age of 49. She had been his biggest fan, so he fought through the sadness of her passing to perform like she would have wanted him to during his senior season at Vero Beach High School. The Rays liked what they saw and selected him in the fourth round of the 2006 Draft.
In addition, Cobb's older brother, R.J., is a commander in 4th Brigade 101st Airborne and served in Iraq, where he won a Purple Heart after his Humvee was blown up, lodging shrapnel in his hands. He made a full recovery and is now serving in Afghanistan. While Cobb is extremely proud of his brother's service, he worries about his well-being.
Professionally, Cobb has dealt with physical issues, but not the more typical shoulder and elbow injuries that often afflict pitchers.
His 2011 season was cut short in August due to thoracic outlet syndrome. On Aug. 18, 2011, he underwent season-ending surgery to remove a blood clot and blockage near his first right rib. Fortunately, the problem was corrected and Cobb was able to move forward.
Then, on June 15, Cobb sustained a concussion after being struck on the right ear with a liner hit by Kansas City's Eric Hosmer. He was taken off the field on a stretcher and hospitalized overnight. Cobb did not make his return until Aug. 15. True to form, he gave up one run in five innings en route to the Rays' 7-1 win over the Mariners.
Through everything he has faced, Cobb just seems to grow tougher.
"I think everything we do in life teaches us a lesson -- good, bad," Cobb said. "It all has an outcome in your life, to your present day. How you react to certain situations -- I mean, there have been some situations that have been tough. Everybody has tough situations. It depends on how you want to deal with those."
Off-the-field matters have helped shape Cobb's perspective without curbing his zeal for the sport he plays with a passion.
"You realize that it's just a game," Cobb said. "That sinks in real quick. But when we're out there, we're not thinking about it being just a game. It's the most important thing going on in my life at that moment when I'm on the field. So I don't think it's fair to say it's just a game to us. It is obviously more than that."
Cobb has become excellent in a pretty short time period.
Fellow starter Jeremy Hellickson noted, "He's definitely figured it all out."
"He's been the most consistent [Rays starter]," Hellickson said. "Right now, you could definitely say he's the best on our staff, and probably the best in the American League right now. David [Price] won a Cy Young, so you can't really say [Cobb] is the best on the staff. But right now, I can't think of anybody better."
Hickey attributed Cobb's progress this season to the simple fact he's more comfortable.
"Having a bit more experience, knowing that he belongs, and pitching in some pretty big games in some pretty big moments," Hickey said. "Just the stuff we always talk about, but you can't teach it. And that coupled with the fact he's got three above-average pitches makes him a pretty darn good pitcher."
Hellickson spoke glowingly of Cobb's curve, calling it "one of the best in the league," explaining how that pitch and other factors have contributed to making Cobb an elite pitcher.
"The pitches he throws, the command that he has, the competitiveness, and the overall mentality when he goes out there -- it's just, he's a bulldog," Hellickson said. "He wants to win. He wants to compete, and he's got the stuff to go out there and make it happen."
In addition to catching Cobb for the Rays, Jose Lobaton also caught Cobb at Triple-A Durham. He too has seen a difference in the right-hander.
"This year was different," Lobaton said. "I could tell as soon as I saw him in Spring Training. I thought he was really ready. When I saw him in Triple-A, he was more of a four-seam guy and changeup. Now, he's throwing strikes. He's on the corners all the time, throws a two-seamer, and that curve ball that he got right now is unbelievable. He's got good stuff, and he believes that he's got good stuff."
Confidence has never been an issue with Cobb. Gaining the confidence of others has been a bigger problem.
"I've believed in my stuff ever since I started pro ball," Cobb said. "I always knew it was up to me whether I was going to succeed in this game or not. Obviously, I didn't get the spotlight as much as some of the pitchers in this organization. But that's a product of the people I'm around. We've got guys who are top-of-the-rotation arms. It's easy to see that. For me to be noticed, it was a little more difficult.
"It wasn't an off-the-charts kind of thing with stuff, it was more pitching. And sometimes that takes longer to develop and to notice. I never let that affect me in my pursuit to make the Major Leagues. I knew when I didn't see my name on prospect lists that it didn't mean I wasn't going to make it. I just needed to keep producing to get noticed."
Cobb believes that being non-descript among the organization's many heralded prospects helped his development, particularly in terms of expectations.
"I think that definitely helped me be aggressive every year and be more determined in getting noticed," Cobb said. "I liked the way things were coming through the system.
"You look at guys like Chris [Archer] and Matt [Moore]," Cobb said. "The expectations for them every year were unreachable in some aspects. I think that's a tougher pressure, mentality to handle than somebody like myself who was flying under the radar. Nobody expected anything of me. Whatever I did was a bonus. Whatever those guys did was expected. So I liked the position I was put in every year."
Rays starters share a bond. They cheer for each other, they laugh with each other and they help each other out when struggles arrive. Cobb and Hellickson have grown especially close. Hellickson is a quiet Iowa native and master of the deadpan, while Cobb is charming, talkative and introspective. So Hellickson served as the perfect source to ask what, if anything, there is about Cobb that nobody knows outside the team.
Hellickson didn't hesitate: "He's not as smart as he thinks he is, that's for sure."
He allowed himself a chuckle.
"He's pretty witty, but he thinks he's a lot smarter than he is."
Hellickson will be hanging on the rail of the visitors' dugout Wednesday night with the other starters, watching Cobb perform and cheering him on as they have all season.
"I've really enjoyed watching him," Hellickson said. "Obviously, he's a really good friend, so I root for him. I've just really enjoyed watching him go out there and compete."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com.