Boston — Twenty-four days after signing with the Orioles, right-hander Alex Cobb is ready to make his first start of the season for his new club.
Cobb, who signed a four-year, $57 million deal on March 21, will make his Orioles debut Saturday at Fenway Park against the Boston Red Sox.
It's the kind of game the Orioles signed Cobb for. Spending his entire career pitching with the Tampa Bay Rays, he's battle-tested in the American League East, and he's had success against division opponents, including the Red Sox.
"It's been a little bit of a wild ride the past, little over a month," Cobb said before Friday's series opener at Fenway Park. "This is the most comfortable I've felt just being in this locker room, somewhere I'm familiar with, and in a clubhouse around some guys that I know. Just looking forward to getting this whole thing underway, get my season started and get back to some normalcy in my life. And just looking forward to being in that competing nature and going out there and trying to win a game."
But is he ready? And what can the Orioles expect from Cobb, whose preparation for the season took an unusual path after he remained unsigned up until the final week of spring training, a victim of a plodding free-agent market that took away any sense of real preseason preparation?
"First time you really haven't been through that spring training and all the things that come with it where you have all your little ups and downs," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "He actually had some of that down there, but I don't expect it to be [perfect]. Who knows? I know he's not using anything as an excuse. He's been champing at the bit to get back here, but I appreciate his and everybody's due diligence about making sure that he got everything we could get him."
The Orioles believe they've been careful with Cobb, especially given the long-term investment they've made in him. But in his four starts to prepare for his debut, he hasn't faced anything close to the level of competition he will see against the Red Sox. His first three outings were simulated games, in which everything was controlled, and his final tuneup was a six-inning stint in an extended spring game.
"I'm real comfortable with the patience, because obviously you want to add somebody like him as soon as possible and if you look at the other people in his shoes, we were, I think, even more judicious in when he comes back because we've got him here for the long haul," Showalter said. "And it might not be perfect the first time out. It's hard to do, especially against these guys. But I feel real comfortable with the amount of time we spent there. He's still probably going to go through some periods because players and pitchers especially are creatures of habit."
Even though spring training starts don't compare to regular-season outings, they are a much more realistic preparation for the season, especially as the exhibition season draws to a close and players near Opening Day. Cobb, who threw bullpen sessions on his own before being signed, was unable to experience any of that this year.
His first start was a three-inning simulated game, and every five days he added an inning, working up to Monday's six-inning extended spring start, in which he threw 93 pitches.
"They actually did a very good job [simulating games]," Cobb said. "I'm sure you guys have gotten to know how detail-oriented Buck is and he really did a good job making sure that even though it wasn't a normal circumstance, we made it very game-like. Couldn't help facing the hitters I was facing, but everything else was as normal of a spring training as I think we could get it. The day-to-day routine, and when I was in a game, there were umpires. There wasn't much atmosphere going on just because it was back fields and this and that, but we did as good of a job with what we were dealt with, and I'm pretty happy and pretty thankful for the way it went."
Ideally, Cobb would have preferred to have faced better competition heading into Saturday night's game against the division-leading Red Sox. Officially, he was optioned to Double-A Bowie — he had to approve being sent to the minors because he has more than five years of major league service time – to build his innings. But he never pitched for the Baysox, in part because he couldn't use major league baseballs in those games since he wasn't pitching as part of a rehabilitation assignment connected to a disabled list stint. Minor league baseballs are smaller with higher seams, and pitching with major league baseballs was important to Cobb in order to get a feel for his pitches.
"I think ideally you'd [face better competition], but it just wasn't in the cards for us the way it played out," Cobb said. "We tried to make some concessions, but I explained to the front office here how important it was to me to throw the big league ball. That was the more important [thing].
"Me seeing the action on the pitches is more important than seeing what the hitters are doing because I know how mistake pitches get handled and how quality, executed pitches get handled. So it's more important for me to feel that release point and that sharpness of the pitches."
Cobb, 30, was born in Boston — his family moved to Florida when he was 2 — and grew up a Red Sox fan. He still returns in the offseason to visit family and go to an occasional New England Patriots game. He's pitched well at Fenway Park, going 5-1 with a 3.15 ERA in seven career starts. The Red Sox have hit just .248 against him in those starts and he's allowed only one home run at Fenway in 40 career innings. So pitching in Boston feels like home to Cobb in more ways than one.
"This really doesn't feel abnormal to me at all," Cobb said. "Walking into the clubhouse and seeing a different color in the locker with the uniforms is the only difference for me right now. It's the same setup. It's always a little hectic coming to Boston, just because my family's from Boston and having them come out and dealing with tickets and stuff like that. But that's more of a normal type of a situation than what I've been dealing with. It feels good."
Cobb will have a challenging opening test against the Red Sox. He will face a Boston team that entered the series with the best record in the AL, averaging 5.75 runs per game, second most in the league, and an AL-best .757 OPS.
"Obviously, it's a very tough lineup," Cobb said. "They're swinging the bats extremely well right now and making the jump from facing Gulf Coast League kids to probably the best lineup in baseball is going to be a little bit of a challenge, but kind of just lean on the experience you've had in this division and facing this team in the past. I got to face them [five] times last season, so that all plays to my advantage. But whether I'm midseason form or first start, this is a tough lineup to face and you have to navigate carefully."