ST. PETERSBURG — Assuming all continues to progress in a positive manner, RHP Alex Cobb will return to the Rays’ rotation by the end of the month.
“I think the end of this month is an extremely realistic goal,’’ Cobb said on Tuesday following a 35-pitch bullpen session.
Cobb has been on the disabled list with a strained left oblique muscle since April 13 and was expected to miss up to six weeks. But after throwing his third bullpen session without any setback, Cobb is next set to throw live batting practice by the end of this week.
Judging by what Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon saw on Tuesday standing behind Cobb in the bullpen, everything appears to be in working order and on track.
“It was pretty impressive,’’ Maddon said of the bullpen session. “Cobber is feeling really good. Great movement on the fastball, velocity was good and his curveball ... I can understand why he is so difficult to hit. You just go up there and stand there, it’s really good stuff, it’s electric, it’s moving and pretty darn good. So he’s not very far off.’’
After feeling no issue with the oblique muscle since getting back on a mound, Cobb said his only limitations at this point involve the ups and downs that come for a starting pitcher during a game. Getting back to that point is all part of the recovery process.
“The oblique is fine. The trickiest thing with any injury with a starting pitcher is we have to build the arm strength back up and that’s going to take a little bit of time,’’ Cobb said. “(Tuesday) I was as aggressive as I could be and I think that partly has to do with just getting to remember what I was doing mechanically before. Plus subconsciously not letting myself hold anything back and just go at it like that in a game situation to really test it out as much as I could and I was really happy with everything.’’
Cobb started the season 1-1 with a 1.89 ERA before suffering the injury.
While Cobb is on track to return this month, RHP Jeremy Hellickson figures to still be more than a month away from joining the rotation following right elbow surgery before the season. The 2011 American League rookie of the year is eyeing a return in late June.
Hellickson has thrown two bullpen sessions in the past week and did some long toss on Tuesday.
“Every time I have thrown, it felt good,’’ Hellickson said.
But there have been some issues with soreness, particularly after throwing curveballs, Hellickson said, but it’s not anything unexpected as the 27-year-old works his strength back up.
“Soreness isn’t a bad thing. Pain is a bad thing,’’ Maddon said. “So if he gets sore, you just have to play through your soreness sometimes. And a lot of times what soreness means is you are building up strength. I’ve always believed that. So if you keep doing that, the soreness is going to go away and you will get stronger for it. So a lot of times I take (soreness) as a positive.’’
For the third time this season, the Rays recalled RHP Brad Boxberger from Triple-A Durham, a route Boxberger said he has become used to traveling. During his time with San Diego the previous two seasons, he was a frequent up-and-down traveler.
“I’ve done it for two years, so this is my third year up-and-down, so I’m kind of used to it, racking up some frequent-flyer miles,’’ Boxberger said. “But hopefully this is the end of it.’’
In four appearances with Tampa Bay this season, the 2009 first-round pick by Cincinnati entered Tuesday with six innings pitched, allowing two hits and six walks while striking out seven without giving up a run. Boxberger entered Tuesday’s game in the top of the sixth in relief of starter Chris Archer.
“He is very capable of being here. I will not hesitate to use him in any situation getting righties or lefties out,’’ Maddon said. “I have a lot of faith in him. ... He is definitely a major-league pitcher, I’ll say that.’’
LHP Cesar Ramos will make his fifth start of the season tonight since the loss of LHP Matt Moore to elbow surgery. Between starts, Ramos came on in relief Saturday in New York on his scheduled bullpen day.
“I still had three days until my start day, so it was fine,’’ Ramos said.
Ramos said he has slowly been building up his pitch count and was encouraged by his last outing in which he threw a career-high 95 pitches in 41⁄3 innings.
“That was huge to finally flirt with 100 pitches instead of being in the 60s or the 70s,’’ he said. “Hopefully this time out I can get into the sixth or seventh and close to 100 pitches.’’
All-Star balloting began Tuesday at Tropicana Field. The Rays have eight players on the American League ballot: 3B Evan Longoria, C Ryan Hanigan, 1B James Loney, 2B Ben Zobrist, OF David DeJesus, OF Desmond Jennings, OF Wil Myers and DH Matt Joyce. ... Zobrist was back in the leadoff spot after being given Sunday off. ... Baltimore RF Nick Markakis extended his hitting streak to 13 games with a leadoff single to start the game. ... Rays SS Yunel Escobar committed his fifth error of the season in the fourth inning. He finished last season with seven errors in 153 games.