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Rays vs. Jays, game one recap: Alex Cobb pitches (well)

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Oh, and the Rays won.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It sure was nice to see Alex Cobb pitch again.

Yes, that outing didn’t start quite how he would have liked it to—no would should have expected more, but by Cobb’s frustrated mound demeanor it is was clear that he himself did—but watching this game, it was easy to squint and see the guy who two years ago was one of the best pitchers in all of baseball.

And you didn’t really have to squint that much.

Early Inning Nerves

For his first major league batter back, Cobb had to face Jose Bautista. He threw a first-pitch fastball right by him. No problem. But a few more pitches in, it seemed like maybe there was a problem. Everything was up, including a curve that started high and then didn’t go anywhere. But Cobb was able to collect himself and bring the ball down in the zone, eventually catching Bautista looking on a changeup at the knees.

The first pitch to Josh Donaldson was a fastball up and in that drew a whiff on a very aggressive swing. Cobb has always been a master at reading the batter, and we saw that with the next pitch, a changeup at the same height and maybe two inches further inside, that had Donaldson as far out in front as you’ll ever see. But Cobb couldn’t put him away, and the eventual result was a ground-rule double that pinballed from the B-ring to the warning track to over the center-field fence.

That run would come home on an Edwin Encarnacion crushed line drive, and a couple grounders eventually put the Blue Jays up by two.

In addition to the two runs, it was an inefficient first inning, and the second one would not be much better.

Cobb caught Melvin Upton Jr. looking on a fastball up in the zone (BA was justifiably confused by Upton’s approach—it wasn’t a sequence that should have resulted in a taken strike three), but he wasn’t able to put Kevin Pillar away after getting up 0-2 in the count.

At this point I wondered if Cobb was cutting his fastball, as a number of the pitches to the glove side of the plate seemed to have less run, and were a mph or two slower. I actually think he was just having trouble with his mechanics, though, and that the lack of finish on those pitches was not intentional.

Facing the Jays order a second time, Cobb got ahead in the count by attacking Bautista’s hands. He couldn’t get his changeup to stay in the zone on three successive tries, though (they were close). Cobb was clearly mad at having issued the walk.

Cobb got out of the inning without further damage, but with 53 pitches through two difficult innings, Jim Hickey had already gone to the bullpen phone.

Return of the Groundball

Then something changed.

Through the first two innings, Cobb, usually a groundball pitcher, hadn’t been able to keep his pitches down. In addition, neither his curve nor his changeup had the type of bite to them Rays fans remembered, with the curve, particularly, being a wasted pitch nearly every time he threw it.

But then, all of a sudden, things were right again. Evan as Cobb’s velocity dipped to 90/91 mph, tops, his location and his secondary pitches improved, and the Blue Jays started to hit the ball weakly on the ground.

To put an emphatic stamp on his return, Cobb struck out Devon Travis, Jose Bautista, and Donaldson in the top of the fifth on only 15 pitches to end the night in dramatic, and dare-I-say dominant, fashion.

It was far from a perfect outing. If this were a young pitcher just up from Triple-A, I’d say that I was worried at the lack of swing-and-miss stuff. Cobb struck out seven batters in his five innings, but all but one of those were the result of the Jays taking strike three. I only counted two really excellent changeups.

But this is isn’t a young pitcher. It’s Alex Cobb, finding his way back from Tommy John surgery. As steps go, this one will do.

Rays Runs

The Rays offense wasn’t standing around watching Alex Cobb find his groove. They were doing work.

In the second, Logan Morrison accepted a one-out walk and then moved to third on a Nick Franklin double. Morrison came home when Dickerson put the ball in play for an RBI groundout to second base.

Then in the third inning, Logan Forsythe lined a single back up the middle, and Kevin Kiermaier got aboard on an E4. When Longoria hit a groundball to short that could have been a double play, Kiermaier gave a clinic on how to play hard-but-not-dirty within the new slide rule. He got to the base quickly while Travis was setting up for his turn, and slid right to the front of the bag (and not an inch past it). He popped up out of his slide, crowding Travis off the plate and preventing him from stepping into the throw. Longo was safe at first.

That smart hustle set up the tying run when Brad Miller grounded back to the pitcher, and Marcus Stroman tried to go for a double play rather than holding Forsythe at third. Troy Tulowitzki, rushing, dropped his transfer.

Alex Cobb didn’t get the win tonight (and he won’t care one bit), because the Rays offense really came alive after he had left the game. In the sixth, Matt Duffy squirted a line drive the other way for a double, and then Morrison blasted a no-doubter to deep center. In the seventh, Luke Maile hit a leadoff homer over the short wall in the left-field corner, Logan Morrison got on base once again and then came home on a Kevin Kiermaier triple, and Brad Miller brought the score to 8-2 on a well-hit home run of his own.

Some other notes:

  • It didn’t go in the box score when Endwin Encarnacion hit his RBI double in the first inning, but Kevin Kiermaier’s throw from the wall was good enough to earn an assist. It was right on the money and it beat Encarnacion to second base, but Brad Miller, running over from first to receive the throw, was behind the play. I guess that’s the kind of thing that happens when your first baseman is a shortstop still learning the position.
  • It’s Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. The Rays were wearing special shirts for batting practice that will be autographed and auctioned off at mlb.com/auction to benefit cancer research (including Moffitt).
  • BA gave an amusing monologue about the only game he’s attended since college as a fan (Cobb was pitching). He did not have a good time. In fact, he called coming to a baseball game and watching “brutal.”
  • BA, on Kevin Kiermaier’s RBI triple that scored Logan Forsythe from first base: “And look at Logan mortar. Or motor. Either one. He got there.”
  • Knuckleballer Eddie Gamboa made his major league debut, becoming, at 31, the second oldest player to bake his debut for the Rays. He didn’t really throw strikes, but hey, he’s cool. And he has a good fastball for a knuckleball pitcher.