Thursday, 4 a.m.
Finally, he was a pitcher again.
At last, he was a member of his team again.
After an eternal wait in the shadows watching others, Alex Cobb rejoined the Tampa Bay Rays. Once again, he was a part, a cog, someone who mattered. After 957 days, Cobb became essential again in a 4-1 victory over the New York Yankees Wednesday night.
For so long, he was an outsider, a memory, damaged goods. For almost a thousand days, he was another hurt pitcher on the mend, and time moved on. Oh, Cobb tried to come back last year, going 1-2 in five September starts. But he was just another guy with a damaged wing. He was Zorro without his sword hand, Robin Hood without his bow.
“I'm a pitcher again,” Cobb said slowly, the smile creasing his face. “One with the desire to get better. I need to get my stuff better. I need to change looks.”
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Cobb thinks that eventually, his fastball will approach the 93or so it did before. The angles to his breaking stuff will get better. His change-up will have more depth. He'll be as dominant as he was before.
For now? This will do.
Cobb walked off the mound slowly in the sixth inning Wednesday night. To tell you the truth, he was a little ticked, because he had two strikes on Matt Holiday and gave up a hit, and he knew another hit would get him removed.
But slowly, it began to dawn on Cobb. After he had come back so far, after he had worked so long, this was a good way for things to go. The crowd cheered. He touched his cap.
“It's a pretty good day,” he said.
It is so hard, and it is long, for a man to come back from Tommy John surgery. There are so many days doing the same exercises, so many times he looks at old videos, so many days he has to wait to get better. A sidelined player isn't part of a team, not really. Everyone pulls for you, but they can't wait for you to catch up.
“Life goes on,” Cobb said. “Baseball goes on.
“It's brutal, man. I hope there is a cure for this that 's not the surgery. I hope there is some alternative procedure out there. Fifteen months? I feel like you could get a knee replacement in that time. I'd say that process (of his journey) is still going a little bit. It's something I definitely understimated. I thought the natural abilities would resurface when I put that glove back on.”
Instead, it was that one-brick-at-a-time rebuilding.
“I thought it was a battle,” Cobb said. “I was definitely the best I've been on the mound since the Tommy John (surgery). It's not to the point where I'd like to end up eventually, but it's good enough to go out there and compete.”
Cobb got just a taste in September, but he still wasn't a pitcher.
“It's night and day,” Cobb said. “I at least have the ability and stuff to go out there and get creative. I'm not going to dominate a game with the stuff I have right now, but I can go out there and throw like I did tonight.”
But it's coming. Cobb believes that. He knows there are lingering questions about him, and there will be until he can string together several starts where he looks like old, smooth Cobb. That's fair. He doesn't mind questions.
“It was really special for all the guys,” Rays' manager Kevin Cash said. “Obviously for him, for us. His teammates were really pumped. Coming out and taking the ball from him, a lot of good messages were said. I even noticed when the inning ended, Longo comes in and gives him a big hug. Had to have been pretty special.”
Cobb got help in this one. His defense was good. His bullpen (1.08 through one series) was good.
But Cobb was good, too. Once more, he was a competitor. Once again, he was a player. He felt the electricity and heard the noise. He mattered again. His blood flowed and his pulse beat.
He was a pitcher.
A pretty good one, too.