With three outs to go for his first complete game in nearly five years, Alex Cobb laid out on the infield grass of Progressive Field just how much it would mean to him to mark his progress back from a miserable first half.
He actually, literally laid out. After his 2-2 changeup shattered Francisco Lindor’s bat on a slow chopper to Cobb’s left, the 30-year-old right-hander went into a full dive in an attempt to knock it down. He avoided the bat shards, second baseman Jonathan Villar cleaned it up and two groundouts later, Cobb had his best start in an Orioles uniform and the team had a well-earned 4-2 win over the Cleveland Indians before a sellout crowd of 35,007.
“If that doesn’t fire you up ...” Orioles catcher Austin Wynns said. “It’s like, he’s a dog; like he is an animal out there. He is a different person. Pitchers just need to have that sense of, ‘This is my game, I’m doing it,’ and I was with him the whole way, same page. And that’s why we had a day like today.”
Such days have only recently started to be the expectation when it comes to Cobb with the Orioles (37-86). He had a 6.41 ERA at the All-Star break and spent four months trying to find his delivery.
“You try to pick yourself up and build on some positives and make a run with that, and really show that you can contribute, you should be here,” Cobb said. “That’s been my focus since I got here, really. It feels good to have contributed with where we are at in the standings. I think the process we’re in right now, it’s going to take some veteran leadership and some guys to step up and show that no matter what situation we’re in, we’re going to come play hard every day.”
Already riding a stretch of four straight quality starts and carrying a 2.03 ERA since the All-Star break, Cobb (4-15) pitched past the seventh inning for the first time in an Orioles uniform and notched his fourth career complete game, the first since Aug. 31, 2013 with the Tampa Bay Rays. That one was eight innings, with his previous nine-inning outing on Aug. 23, 2012. Both came against the Oakland Athletics.
His nine innings of two-run ball was just the latest marker that the Orioles’ late-signing free-agent prize has pitched through whatever cobwebs limited him early in the season, with each passing start more and more reminiscent of the Cobb that impressed so much before Tommy John elbow reconstruction in 2015.
The ballpark was buzzing from a pregame ceremony honoring Hall of Famer Jim Thome when Cobb took the mound Saturday, and he quickly changed that.
“Alex seemed to dial up what was needed,” manager Buck Showalter said. “You could tell from the first inning. He took a lot of the crowd out.”
Cobb turned the Indians lineup over with a simple 30 pitches in the first three innings, and erased Lindor with a double play after his leadoff single in the fourth inning accounted for Cleveland’s first hit.
By then, the Orioles had already taken a lead they’d never hand back when Wynns walked with one out in the third inning, fellow rookie Cedric Mullins bunted for a base hit and Villar hit his third home run in an Orioles uniform to make it 3-0.
The Indians (70-52) only got to Cobb in the sixth inning, when in the span of seven pitches, all three of Yan Gomes, Greg Allen and Lindor singled ahead of a sacrifice fly by Michael Brantley to score twice and cut the Orioles’ lead to 3-2. That inning was cut down, however, when Wynns threw Lindor out on a stolen base attempt.
“Just unbelievable,” Cobb said of his rookie catcher, who similarly deferred credit to Cobb for holding the speedy Lindor on and setting him up for the throw.
Cleveland threatened after a leadoff walk and a one-out single in the seventh inning put runners on the corners with one out, but Cobb got a first-pitch double-play ball from Melky Cabrera to put the Orioles back in the dugout.
“He made a lot of big pitches,” Showalter said. “That’s such a tough lineup, especially in this ballpark. … And Alex had a tempo. Usually, good defense comes behind a guy throwing that many strikes.”
It was then that Cobb got the scent of a complete game. He’d been working quickly, something he’d started to do a few starts ago to keep hitters off balance and keep the defense engaged behind him. He hadn’t been able to locate the pitch count on the cluttered Progressive Field scoreboard, so he mainly was going by feel when pitching coach Roger McDowell asked him how he felt. Cobb told him he felt good, and asked where he was at pitch-wise. When Cobb heard he’d used just 77 pitches to that point, his target was clear.
“I really tried to kind of snip the finish line from there on out,” Cobb said. “You’ve got that many pitches to work through two innings, you get another gear and you get that adrenaline going to finish it off.”
For Wynns, it was in his mind that Cobb could have a good game much earlier: “Right from the get-go.
“It was just like he was spotting everything,” Wynns said. “And they were swinging early and our defense was working, too. … I probably want to say, though, the fifth inning is when it started kicking in and I was like, ‘We’re going to do this, we’re going to do this.’ We were at like 40, 50 pitches and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re going.’ ”
Mullins’ first career home run in the eighth inning gave Cobb a bit of extra cushion, and Cobb comfortably finished out the complete game on 100 pitches to lower his ERA to 5.09.
“It feels really good to get it, absolutely, and it feels really good to have that with Wynns behind the plate,” Cobb said.