CLEVELAND — The final out was recorded Monday night and his teammates were jumping the dugout rail to celebrate the Rays’ victory when Alex Cobb felt a rush of adrenalin that remained with him through Tuesday and won’t leave until he’s finished pitching tonight at Progressive Field.
Cobb called his start two weeks ago against the Texas Rangers the biggest of his career. That start was trumped by his next outing against Baltimore, and that start against the Orioles was topped by his final start of the season against the Yankees in New York.
Now Cobb faces the Cleveland Indians tonight in the AL wild card, the one-game play-in to the division series against the Boston Red Sox that begins Friday at Fenway Park.
This, Cobb said Tuesday, is truly the biggest start of this career.
“Those other games were good practice, a good warm-up,” Cobb said. “I want the ball a lot more (tonight) than I have in the past. It’s the ultimate test.”
The Rays advanced to the wild-card game by beating the Rangers on Monday. It was the 163rd game of the season, an additional game needed to settle the tie for the second wild-card spot.
David Price threw a complete game Monday. Cobb couldn’t help but focus on the Indians as he celebrated with his teammates on the field at Rangers Ballpark and again in the clubhouse.
“That’s new,” Cobb said of the adrenalin rush that normally hits the night before or the morning of one of his starts. “I think it can be a good thing.”
Cobb’s season was interrupted by a lengthy stay on the disabled list after suffering a concussion June 15 when he took a line drive off the right side of his head. Cobb was the Rays’ most consistent pitcher until his injury and was their most consistent pitcher since his return.
He was 11-3 with a 2.72 ERA in 22 starts. He won his last three starts, beating the Rangers, Orioles and Yankees as the Rays tried to maintain their footing in the wild-card race.
“I, we have all the faith in the world with him pitching for a variety of reasons, and No. 1 is ... the competitive nature is in an elite category,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said.
How elite? James Shields elite, Maddon said.
Cobb wants to win whether he’s shooting pool with his buddies, playing Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore in video hockey or trying to move his team a step closer toward the World Series by beating the 92-win Indians.
“It sounds weird to talk about, because I feel like everybody’s mentality is probably like that,” Cobb said. “But when people say that about me I’m kind of confused. I feel everybody who’s playing wants to win.”
Cobb felt that burn to win while sitting on his couch this summer and watched the Rays celebrate victory after victory while he recovered from his concussion.
“The feeling of being left out is almost indescribable,” Cobb said. “It’s a terrible feeling that you don’t want to have again.”
Cobb experienced those same feelings in 2011 as he recovered from surgery to remove a blood clot near his first right rib while the Rays chased down the Red Sox and won the wild card on the final night of the season.
“It was definitely extra motivation to get back,” Cobb said. “Definitely fueled that fire even more to get back to the postseason and know that we have a special group that can go far.”
Sitting a few feet to Cobb’s right at Tuesday afternoon’s news conference, Maddon praised Cobb’s physical tools — his fastball, curveball and split-change-up that Maddon said are elite pitches.
“To not include Alex Cobb among the best pitchers in baseball right now would be a mistake,” Maddon said. “He is one of the best.”
Jamey Wright later added, “He’s going to be a 20-game winner some day. He’s that good.”
Right now Cobb will settle for pitching the Rays to a win tonight in the biggest start of his career.
“It’s a Game 7 mentality. It’s win or go home, and I want the ball in that situation,” Cobb said. “I think every competitor dreams of that moment, wants the ball in that moment.”
Cobb has the ball tonight.
The moment is his.