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For late-signing pitchers like Orioles' Alex Cobb, navigating season a challenge with no blueprint

Alex Cobb has been asked several times this season how close he is to feeling like himself again, but for the Orioles right-hander, it’s not as simple as an easy yes or no. After signing with the Orioles during the final week of spring training, Cobb’s preparation for this season had no blueprint. While everyone else in the game was nearly regular-season ready, he was just starting, and his preparation for this year carried into the seven major league starts he has made starting with his Orioles debut April 14.

A slow free-agency market left several starting pitchers unsigned well into March, and for those pitchers, they’ve been forced to work off a different calendar. And in Cobb’s case, he’s been in a new organization for less than two months.

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Cobb, 30, appears to have turned the corner. After failing to get through five innings in each of his first three starts, posting a 13.11 ERA, Cobb has a 3.38 ERA in his past four outings, including back-to-back quality starts at the Los Angeles Angels and Oakland Athletics as well as another Friday against the Boston Red Sox. His was also one out away from a quality start May 12 before a lengthy rain delay forced him from the game. Despite his strides, the Orioles are 1-6 in games Cobb has started.

“I think the biggest challenge that I’m facing right now is when you go through spring training, there’s equal talent at an equal stage to where we’re all able to go out there and fail and you’re not feeling pressed with the results,” Cobb said earlier this month. “Those don’t matter. You can give up an eight spot and the media doesn’t care. You can tell them you’re working on a pitch and reality was I had no idea what I was doing today.

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“So you have to find a way to realize that these are real games that matter and those results really do stink and they’re going on the back of your baseball card and they’re going in the loss column for your team. But the challenge is to block it out – it really is – and that’s the toughest part because I wake up after these outings with a sick feeling in my stomach because I’m thinking, ‘What happened,’ knowing that I’m being judged on that performance where I can’t get wrapped up in that and focus more on the positives and learning from that. There is no blueprint for that.”

Minnesota Twins right-hander Lance Lynn, who signed nine days before Cobb on March 12, has also struggled after signing late. Lynn, who was fast-tracked for the regular season to start on April 2, has a 7.47 ERA in eight starts, and has gone six innings just twice this season including once in his past five starts. Former Orioles right-hander Jake Arrieta, a free agent who also signed March 12 but didn’t make his first start until April 8, has been successful early on, posting a 2.82 ERA in eight starts with the Philadelphia Phillies.

“I had a really good setup,” Arrieta said this past week when the Phillies were in Baltimore. “I was training with a college team and doing baseball activity with them, throwing bullpens every other day, 300-foot long toss, so my arm was ready. But I was still slightly behind. But I’m a quick learner and I caught up quick. … [In the offseason], I tried to face hitters when I had the opportunity. I had guys stand in the box, but you can’t replicate a big league spring training game anywhere else. You just really can’t do it. So, you know, you’re going to be slightly behind no matter what you do.”

Cobb also threw bullpen sessions on his own while waiting to be signed. He voluntatily accepted an option to the minors to prepare for the season, but because he wanted to pitch with major league baseballs, which the minor leagues wouldn’t allow because he wasn’t on a rehabilitation assignment, he only pitched in simulated and extended spring games in Florida before joining the Orioles. After his first start, in which he was hammered for eight runs (seven earned) in 3 2/3 innings at Fenway Park against a challenging Boston Red Sox lineup, Cobb said he wasn’t prepared for that level of competition.

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Since then, Cobb tried to build on little things, whether it was one pitch or one at-bat or one inning when he felt comfortable on the mound, and replicate that.

“When we talk about these things, they’re very fine details,” Cobb said. “It’s not taking this ball and throwing it to that glove. There’s a lot more that goes into it. … The challenge of it this whole time was not getting wrapped up in the negative outcomes that were happening and wading through all that and even if it was just one pitch to build off of, [asking myself], ‘What did I feel there? How do we get back to that point consistently?’ ”

The first step was gaining command, Cobb said, then seeing more weak contact, knowing that missing bats would follow. And while Cobb is a cerebral pitcher, he said the ultimate search is for feel and comfort.

“There are some points during the game where things are speeding up and you just become a pitcher again and you’re just throwing, you’re not thinking as much,” Cobb said. “That’s what you’re looking for. None of us got here because we’re smart. We’re better athletes than we are smart, so you want to get your mind out of there eventually.”

Friday’s start in Boston, which marked his first win with the Orioles in seven attempts, was another step forward for Cobb.

“I feel like I’m comfortable out there competing,” Cobb said. “I feel like there are some innings, some pitches where I’m searching for some things, but the overall comfort level on the mound, going to compete, that feels back. I feel like I have enough pitches to really induce weak contact and to navigate a lineup. Obviously, I would like to be a little bit sharper. I’ll continue to get sharper as I get out there and I get the work week in between. You’re not going to hear anything negative out of me today. I’m pretty excited to get that first win with this club.”

What’s been challenging for Cobb, who missed nearly two years because of Tommy John elbow surgery, is that he’s still trying to get back to being the pitcher he was before the 2015 season. Cobb said that last season – his first full year back from the surgery, when he went 12-10 with a 3.66 ERA – he wasn’t “fully right” because he hadn’t regained the feel for his split-changeup pitch, which had been his best swing-and-miss weapon.

“But at least I felt comfortable on the mound where I was in game mode and I felt really good,” Cobb said of last season. “Those are too different things I’m striving for, and I feel very close to both of them. … Before [the surgery], I had 13 years of my life where there were no real mechanics. It was just I’m throwing this ball and I have these weapons in my back pocket, and now I can pick and choose when I want to use them. I can fine-tune them. When you get the Tommy John and you’re two years removed from the game, everything just gets wiped out, almost like a memory back and you have to rebuild those pieces while also trying to go out there and win ballgames.

“There’s a challenge there. Yeah I’m still trying to get back to the pitcher I was before the Tommy John surgery and I think that when I’m talking to you guys, it’s two different things: It’s feeling close to getting back to that and feeling really comfortable on the mound again.”

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After not allowing a stolen base all season, Orioles starter Kevin Gausman gave up five steals to the Red Sox on Thursday night.

Over his two starts before Friday, Cobb’s swinging strike rate was 9.9 percent, which is better than his career rate of 8.4 percent and closer to the rates he had before surgery. And over that same two-start stretch, he was much more successful getting swings and misses from his split-change, inducing a 20.4 percent swinging strike rate. His outing two starts ago was vintage Cobb as he held Oakland to two runs (one earned) through six innings while finishing with nine groundouts. He threw his split-change a season-high 32 times, and drew seven swinging strikes with it.

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In Cobb’s May 12 start, even though he allowed four runs (three earned) over 5 2/3 innings against Tampa Bay, his former teammates saw signs of the dominant pitcher he was with the Rays.

“He looked good,” Rays right-hander Chris Archer said. “His curveball was sharp. His split, it was looking very Cobb-ish. And his fastball velocity was 91-93, which is pretty good, too. … His stuff, he looked good. He could have easily went seven.”

Said Rays manager Kevin Cash: “He looks good. know he’s close.”

So after the litany of questions about getting back to feeling like his old self, will Cobb let everyone know when he feels like he’s back? Probably not.

“I’ll know it, but I probably won’t tell very many people,” Cobb said with a smile. “But also, as professional athletes we’re never finished. You’re always trying to get better. You’re always trying to find ways. This game can never be beat. There’s never a finished level. It keeps evolving, you keep trying new things, you keep trying to get better.”

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