HOUSTON - Six runs had scored and Alex Cobb still hadn't retired a batter during the first inning against the Red Sox a few weeks back. There were runners on second and third when Jose Lobaton decided he needed to talk with his pitcher. "I'm thinking, 'Wow I got to go out there,' " Lobaton said. "But what am I going to say?" Here is the gist of what Lobaton said: Keep pitching, throw the change-up in the dirt, let's get some ground balls and get out of the inning, because this game is far from over. Cobb got the next batter to line out to Yunel Escobar and the following hitter to bounce into an inning-ending double play.
The Red Sox did win the game . in 14 innings. For Cobb, that moment encapsulates just how far Lobaton has come this season as a major-league player. "You could really tell in his eyes that he felt he was the one giving up those six runs," Cobb said. "He looked upset about it, and he still believed in me. It definitely gave me more motivation." After the inning, Cobb thanked Lobaton for the pep talk. After the game Cobb told reporters how much Lobaton's game has developed in such a short time. "That's why I'm here. I'm here for the pitcher," Lobaton said. "I'm not here to hit, I'm here to catch. Well, thank God I'm hitting right now." There's that, too. Lobaton entered Thursday's game against the Astros hitting .311 since April 25. For the season, Lobaton is batting .279. His 20 RBIs match his career high. "His best run since Little League," Rays manager Joe Maddon said of Lobaton's work at the plate. How far has Lobaton progressed as a hitter? Rays fans who stuck around for the end of the 5-hour, 24-minute marathon were thrilled when he came to bat in the bottom of the 14th inning as the tying run. It's quite a turnaround for Lobaton, who had an awful spring training with the bat and made the team basically because he was out of options and Chris Gimenez had one. "Spring training was a really bad moment for me," Lobaton said. But the Rays saw enough from Lobaton since he joined the Rays organization in 2009 to think he could be a productive major-league catcher. "In the minor leagues at different times he was able to do basically everything we want a catcher to do at the major-league level," Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. "And with all young players it takes time to develop. Some guys get it quickly. Some guys get it a little slower, and some guys never get it at all. . With Loby, we definitely felt like he had upside." Said Cobb, "The want was always there, the will to learn. Everything wasn't always clicking with him, but it is now." When Evan Longoria watches Lobaton go about his business this season, on and off the field, he sees a 28-year-old catcher who truly believes he is a big-league player. "I see a lot more of his competitive fire, competitive nature coming through as opposed to last year, when he didn't really feel it was his place to speak up on a couple of things, state his opinion, be assertive," Longoria said. "It's a good thing, because that's what you look forward to in a catcher, is a guy who can lead. The pitching staff has to be on the same page as a catcher and respect them enough to follow their lead. He's really taken to his role nicely." Lobaton credits his production at the plate to hitting coach Derek Shelton and assistant hitting coach Jamie Nelson. He has not made dramatic changes to his swing or his approach. It's more like hard work paying off. "We've been trying to figure out what I need to do better at home plate," Lobaton said. "Not better in practice, but what to do to feel better at home plate when I'm in the game, and we found a couple of things. When you're confident, you can hit the ball." As for his defense and working with the pitching staff, well, that's a product of Lobaton knowing the pitching staff better. He said he picked Jose Molina's brain last season about how to call a game and handle a staff, and he's taking what Molina taught him into the games. "You have to prove yourself on the field before people will listen to you, and he's gotten to that level," Cobb said. "He's earned the right to come out (to the mound) and tell you what he's thinking. There's value in that. His words hold weight. He knows what he's talking about. He's a major-league catcher." And that's all Lobaton wants - to be called a major-league catcher. "That makes me feel better, because I know they have confidence in me so I can be myself," Lobaton said. "I can hit .400, and if we don't go to playoffs that means nothing for me. We go to the playoffs, people will ask, 'Who was the catcher? Lobaton? Oh, wow. That's the guy.' That's more important to me."