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Sunday, May 20, 2018
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Martin Fennelly Columns

Fennelly: Cobb faces unknown as he starts over

ST. PETERSBURG — Tonight will be two months, exactly, since the June night when Alex Cobb was felled by a line drive to the skull and carried from the mound at Tropicana Field. It seems like another season, another world. In it, Cobb was the Rays’ best starting pitcher, 6-2 with a 3.01 ERA, an emerging star.

Now, two months to the day, he is emerging from a tunnel. He’ll be back off the disabled list and get the start for the Rays, on the same hill, against Seattle.

“It’s going to be like starting over, a new season for me,” Cobb said.

The vertigo is gone, no symptoms as Cobb made three rehab starts.

But no one knows what happens tonight.

The now truly reeling Rays — talk about vertigo — need Cobb, here and now, badly.

“Before Alex Cobb went down, he was one of the best pitchers in baseball, he really was,” Rays pitcher David Price said. “... What he was able to do, every five days when he took the ball out there for us, it was unbelievable. I haven’t seen that many swings and misses ever on a baseball field.”

Price rebounded from a poor start to the season, then an injury, to revitalize Rays pitching when they needed it. Now they need the same thing from Cobb, especially since Matt Moore isn’t coming off DL this weekend after all.

It might be asking a lot.

Price is the reigning Cy Young winner.

And Alex Cobb had his world rocked two months ago.

“I don’t feel like I’ve pitched this year, honestly,” he said. “I watch the games, have my numbers come up on the screen and really forget that I’ve been out there this season. It’s really been that long.”

He thinks he has an idea of what it will be like when he pitches tonight: jitters, adrenalin, like any first time out in a season. But he doesn’t know, really. Neither do we.

The night he got drilled, Cobb thought he’d go his next scheduled start. That was pure pride and tenacity talking. It didn’t matter that Toronto pitcher J.A. Happ, who had been struck by a liner at the Trop five weeks before Cobb, still wasn’t back on the mound. Cobb was actually upset when he was placed on the DL.

“Then the headaches started setting in and I realized it was going to last a while,” he said.

It lasted two months.

“You can be as tough as you want through different injuries, but when it comes to something in the head, you have to take the doctor’s advice and relax. As hard as I could have pushed to go back out there, I couldn’t have done it. I was having trouble walking at (first), let alone pitching.”

Consigned to watching his team on TV, it ate him up.

“It was tough sitting at home when they were on that post All-Star winning streak and I couldn’t be a part of it. You could see how much fun they were having and they were doing the pitcher’s jump after every start,” he said.

And then there was that winless West Coast trip. Cobb couldn’t begin to help.

Now he can.

Cobb and Happ reached out to each other. They traded texts. Happ came back on Aug. 7 — three months to the day he was struck at the Trop. Happ has made two starts since his return and threw seven innings of one-run, three-hit baseball.

“We just exchanged stories,” Cobb said. “He told me how he felt when he saw what happened on the same mound where it happened to him. It’s a different view when you see someone else go through it. We talked about his knee injury and his progress. It’s nice to see him back in a big league uniform.”

Alex Cobb will be on the mound tonight.

That’s all that matters for now.

“He’s lurking on the horizon,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said.

Cobb has seen the replay of that liner, many times. He doesn’t flinch.

“The more I see it isn’t going to make me more skittish,” he said.

Two days ago, at the end of one session with a gaggle of media, the always-friendly Cobb grinned to take the sting out of all the discussion about his long road back: “I’m tired of this. I’m tired of hearing it, seeing it, answering questions. Hopefully, on Thursday, I’ll get it all behind me.”

It’s a new season, he hopes. So do the Rays.

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