Alex Cobb occupies his own distinctive place in the Orioles' contract continuum: signed for this year and three more as the team's prized free agent this offseason, and responsible for helping the rotation be a bridge to whatever's next after the pending exodus of star position players and relievers.
Much has been made of the multiyear commitment he and the Orioles made to each other, as well as the team's caution in bringing along its $56 million pitcher after his late-March signing.
But what everyone needed was a night like the one Cobb had Tuesday at Citi Field in the Orioles' 2-1 win over the New York Mets (27-31). No caveats, no blow-up innings, just six solid innings of two-hit, one-run ball to represent his best start in Orioles colors.
The right-hander who is asked to be both a future foundational piece and a present-day contributor began to look like both, albeit against a sputtering Mets offense that matched the struggles of the Orioles (18-41) step for step.
“We've seen bits and pieces of it,” manager Buck Showalter said. “He's such a perfectionist, but the sustaining ones like he's been known for, like tonight, that's good for him to see — and it's good for the team, because we all know what he's capable of.”
Perhaps Cobb (2-7) was motivated by the two runs the Orioles' offense got him early. Trey Mancini, Adam Jones and Manny Machado each singled inside Jason Vargas' first 12 pitches, with Machado's slow roller up the middle scoring Mancini and a sacrifice fly by Danny Valencia scoring Jones.
Or perhaps it was the idea that this offense, which doesn't score often, might not again for him. Either way, Cobb fanned two batters in a quick first, worked around a two-out walk in the second and was staring down the possibility of a short outing after using 41 pitches on the first seven batters he faced.
But Cobb buckled down for a nine-pitch third and an 11-pitch fourth to ensure that wouldn’t be the case, using his season’s crispest collection yet of secondary pitches — largely his split-change and curveball — to match a season high with eight swinging strikes and five strikeouts through four frames.
The first hit he allowed came on a pull shot by Jay Bruce down the first base line that clunked off Chris Davis' glove. Bruce went to third on a double by Kevin Plawecki and scored on a sacrifice fly by pinch hitter José Bautista, though Cobb left Plawecki at third by winning a 10-pitch battle with Amed Rosario for his sixth strikeout of the night.
Brandon Nimmo swung through a two-strike fastball for the third time to account for Cobb's seventh strikeout to open the sixth, and the 30-year-old made quick work of Asdrubal Cabrera and Michael Conforto in his last action on the mound.
Not only were the results his best in 10 starts with the Orioles, but so, too, was his stuff. As he struggled through starts without his best offerings, Cobb lamented the amount of balls in play and said he’d be at his best when he started missing bats.
Eight of Cobb’s swinging strikes came against his fastball, a pitch Showalter said he could tell he was throwing differently.
“He had great late life with his fastball,” Showalter said. “Sometimes with pitchers, you see him throwing the ball to a target instead of through it. He was throwing the ball through the target.”
The combination of his changeup and curveball helped Cobb record a season-high 15 swinging strikes, with plenty of those secondary pitches confidently thrown for chases to catcher Austin Wynns in his major league debut. Cobb hadn’t topped that whiff total since Aug. 21, 2014, with the Tampa Bay Rays — before Tommy John surgery took nearly two seasons off his career and forced him to pare down his arsenal on his way back last season.
“There's still times where it would get away from me a little bit, but overall, I felt pretty confident in each pitch I was throwing that I was going to be able to make it do what I wanted, for the most part,” Cobb said. “I was working on some things that obviously are leading me down the right path, so these workdays in between, coming off outings like this, are big because you have a pretty good idea of what you need to do and the mechanics you need to repeat. Now it's just making it become muscle memory.”
The start was refreshingly devoid of all the peculiarities of Cobb's first nine starts — no hard contact, no brutal batted-ball luck, no blow-up innings. Instead, the most bizarre part was when Cobb hit for himself in lieu of a pinch hitter with two outs in the top of the seventh, grounded out and was still pulled for Mychal Givens to open the bottom of the inning. Showalter didn’t want to waste a hitter.
Givens, Richard Bleier and Brad Brach combined to post zeros in the final three innings to ensure that the Orioles wouldn't rue their lack of runs the rest of the way. After their first three batters singled to open the game, the Orioles had only three more hits and a pair of walks.
They signed a pitcher of Cobb's caliber to make slim leads like this stand up. On Tuesday, he delivered, and he hopes a start like this leads to years more of them.
“I think one of the things in sports you hear a lot is when guys sign big contracts with a team and try to go out and impress and try to show there's value in the contract,” Cobb said. “I never really felt like that, but I did feel like I wanted to come out here and show and prove that [the] front office and the organization put their trust in me with this deal, that they made the right decision. It was frustrating early on because it felt like I was disproving that in a way. Whenever you're struggling as an athlete, it's tough. It's on your mind all night, and you're trying to search for what it is to get you back to being you. It was a tough stretch, but like I said, today got me knowing that I'm on the right path of what I'm looking for.”