If Orioles right-hander Alex Cobb is still trying to find his footing this season, then Wednesday night was like slipping on a banana peel.
Coming off disastrous outings in Boston and Detroit in his first two starts, Cobb appeared to be showing signs for optimism Wednesday in his Orioles’ home debut. That is, until the fifth inning at Camden Yards.
Through four, Cobb was holding his own against his longtime teammates, the Tampa Bay Rays. Sure, he wasn’t perfect — his first pitch of the game was blistered to the left-center gap for a Denard Span double, and the Rays hit several other scorchers that found Orioles’ gloves — but Cobb was getting outs. No strikeouts, but outs.
“I felt really strongly, mechanically, from the second inning through the fourth,” Cobb said. “It’s the best I’ve felt just even throwing the ball, just feeling my hand behind the ball, the way it comes out, the angle that I’m having it come out in, the movement on the two-seam (fastball).”
And then one nightmarish frame unraveled Cobb’s progress.
Everything he threw in the fifth inning was hit. Hard. The lead got away from Cobb quickly when the first three Rays got on base, capped by C.J. Cron’s two-run double.
Worse, Cobb wasn’t able to stop the bleeding and keep the game tied. He wasn’t able to finish the inning, getting pulled with two runners on base and two more runs in. He gave up 10 hits and five runs in 4 2/3 innings.
Cobb was visibly frustrated on the mound, and it’s hard to blame him. His first three starts with the Orioles aren’t what anyone anticipated when the club signed him to a four-year, $57 million deal March 21. Cobb has a 13.11 ERA after three starts. He hasn’t made it through the fifth inning in any of them. He’s been torched for 30 hits in just 11 2/3 innings.
Yes, Cobb has given up the same number of hits this year as the much-maligned Chris Tillman — in one fewer start than Tillman.
“He just missed with some pitches,” manager Buck Showalter said. “He’s closer. He’s going to be fine. It’s just frustrating for him, because he’s really trying to deliver something in a time of need. You know you have that type of potential there, and he’s not quite there yet. He will be.”
Cobb didn’t sign with the Orioles until late in spring training, so the Orioles expected he might need a few outings to get his feet under him. But they didn’t expect the early results to be quite this horrific.
“This whole search that I’m on, trying to get right, it’s tough,” Cobb said. “It’s tough to play behind. It’s more tough to be out there on the mound doing it. But there’s no excuses. There’s things that are off on my end.
“It’s the toughest thing I’ve had to do as a big leaguer. You just kind of feel like you’re behind and going turbo speed to try to catch back up with everybody. This is tough, but I’ve got to find a way to get it going. I know I will. It’s hard to see from the outside … but I know I have the ball and I know what I can do with it. So it’s just a matter of getting there.”
The Orioles may have made a mistake in holding Cobb out of minor league games before he joined the big club. Because the Orioles didn’t want him using minor-league balls, as required, in official games, he didn’t pitch for any affiliate, instead stretching out at extended spring training and throwing on the side at Double-A Bowie.
Cobb didn’t get much experience facing live hitters this spring before the Orioles thrust him into the rotation April 14. So far, the adjustment period has been a particularly painful one.
“I’ve just got to throw the ball,” Cobb said. “You can’t do anything to replace reps. You can try to do all the dry work, all the bullpens, all the video work, everything you want. But until you have that ball in your hand, with big league hitters staring you down, nothing will replicate that.”
Orioles’ slow start nearly makes history
The Orioles’ loss Wednesday dropped them to 6-18 through 24 games.
No matter how Thursday’s game turns out, the Orioles have clinched at least a tie for the second-worst 25-game start in team history.
Before this season, that dubious mark was held by the 2010 Orioles, who began the year 7-18. That club later reached a low-water mark of 32-73 in early August before Showalter took over as skipper and guided them to a 34-23 record the rest of the way.
Now, Showalter is on the other side of the coin. It’s his 2018 Orioles who will tie that 2010 team’s brutal start if they win Thursday, or will end up being one game worse if they lose.
The worst start in Orioles history, of course, belongs to the 1988 Orioles, who began the season with a 21-game losing streak and stood at 2-23 after 25 games.
This year’s Orioles can’t match that historic futility. But that’s probably not much consolation for a club that’s already 12 games under .500 and 12 1/2 games out of first place.
A heartwarming return
While the Orioles stumbled to another loss, a fascinating story was playing out on the other side of the diamond.
In the bottom of the sixth inning, the Rays brought in newly recalled lefty Jonny Venters for one batter. He retired Chris Davis on a groundout.
Venters was a former All-Star reliever for the Atlanta Braves, but the fact that he was back on a big league mound was nothing short of a miracle. The 33-year-old hadn’t made an MLB appearance since Oct. 5, 2012, the National League Wild Card game.
Then his career took a terrible turn.
Venters underwent an elbow ligament replacement — Tommy John surgery — the second of his career, in May 2013. He recovered poorly from the procedure and didn’t throw another pitch in a professional game before he was forced to undergo a third Tommy John in Sept. 2014.
Then, after the Rays signed him to a minor league deal in 2015, Venters again had elbow trouble and dealt with another surgical procedure — but not Tommy John — in July 2016.
Finally, a whopping 2,028 days after he last took a major league mound, Venters toed the rubber for the Rays on Wednesday.
How long had it been since Venters pitched? Well, his last appearance before this one was also the final game for Braves’ legend Chipper Jones, who has since been elected to the Hall of Fame.
According to the Rays’ press notes, 1,287 players have made their major league debuts since Venters last pitched. Only six other current Rays had debuted in the bigs at the time.
It’s been a long, grueling road back for Venters. But when he took the hill at Camden Yards on Wednesday, nothing could have felt more fulfilling.