After a strong showing in Spring Training, Rays right-hander Alex Cobb didn't miss a beat in his first start of 2013. Can he keep it up in Friday's showdown with an American League East rival?
Tampa Bay and Boston will kick off a four-game set Friday at Fenway Park, where Cobb will toe the rubber for the Rays against Red Sox lefty Felix Doubront.
Doubront gave up three runs on nine hits in his first start, but Cobb couldn't have been much better in his season debut. Cobb held the Indians scoreless over 7 1/3 innings Saturday while striking out six, an encouraging sign that the 25-year-old might be ready to take a step forward in Tampa Bay's rotation.
"I feel good right now. I felt good during Spring Training. Carried over into the season, so I'm trying to stay on that momentum," Cobb said. "I'll try to stay consistent with my delivery throughout the game and the rest of the year."
History would indicate this is a good matchup for Cobb, a Boston native. In 34 plate appearances against Cobb, current Red Sox hitters have posted a combined .148/.324/.259 batting line, and Cobb owns a 2-1 record and 2.81 ERA in three career starts against Boston. But Cobb thinks he can improve on those impressive numbers.
"I haven't felt extremely comfortable there the last few times I've pitched there. I think that's in the past," Cobb said. "I've had some success, but they haven't been my crispest performances."
This will be the first meeting of the season between these two AL East clubs. While the Rays finished third in the division with a 90-72 record last year and the Red Sox went 69-93 and finished fifth, last year's season series was actually a 9-9 split.
Quite a bit has changed for both clubs, however, since their last regular-season meeting. The Rays went through their annual roster revamp, overhauling their lineup and bullpen while dealing away durable starter James Shields. The Red Sox, meanwhile, have upgraded their bullpen and added Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, Stephen Drew, former Ray Jonny Gomes and dynamic rookie outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. to their lineup.
That bullpen has been a focal point early in the year -- pitching well for the most part, though Joel Hanrahan blew his first save Wednesday night and three relievers could not escape the seventh unscathed Thursday in another Red Sox loss.
"The ninth inning presents such a unique environment or atmosphere in and of itself, I think as much as coming into Boston -- and I don't want to say that's the reason for it -- but [Hanrahan] is facing hitters he hasn't seen for quite a while," manager John Farrell said. "And the reason is the way the lineups are constructed here, you don't have that pitcher or pinch-hitter who has been on the bench all night showing up late in the game. It's a little bit of a different animal, the lineups in the American League."
Cobb isn't getting caught up in any changes, though, instead opting to rely on what's worked so well for him this year -- and in years past against Boston.
"I don't really have to look over them too much. It's early in the year, you can't really look at video yet to see what guys are doing," Cobb said. "It's kind of too early for that. Just kind of go off how I feel and what I've done to them."
Rays: Niemann undergoes successful surgery
• Rays right-hander Jeff Niemann will miss the rest of the season, as expected, after having successful surgery on his right shoulder Wednesday in Arlington, Texas. The operation was performed by Dr. Keith Meister and repaired Niemann's labrum and rotator cuff.
Niemann lost the battle for the fifth spot in the Rays' rotation to Roberto Hernandez and was set to pitch out of the bullpen this year. But Niemann, whose velocity sharply declined during his excellent spring performance, began to feel significant pain as he prepared to make that transition and finally said he wouldn't be able to compete at the Major League level without the surgery.
• Designated hitter Luke Scott (right calf strain) ran sprints in the outfield Wednesday at Rangers Ballpark and said afterward he will return to Tampa Bay's lineup sooner than expected. The Rays initially said Scott could miss three to five weeks.
"I believe I'll be back much sooner than that," Scott said.
Red Sox: Victorino thriving
Outfielder Shane Victorino has been batting second against lefties and righties this year, which wasn't the original plan, but has been working nicely.
"I think once we started the season, his at-bats from the left side of the plate have been consistent, they've been fairly equal to the right side," Farrell said. "What Daniel [Nava] has done with providing protection behind Will [Middlebrooks] and really in the short run -- he's been almost a middle-of-the-order type of bat -- whether it's getting an inning started with a walk or an extra-base hit, it gives us the ability to lengthen out the lineup a little bit and protection in that middle of the order."
Victorino went 2-for-4 out of the two-hole Thursday, scoring a run.
• The Rays donned letterman jackets on their chartered flight from Texas to Boston on Wednesday night, their first themed road trip of the season and their 23rd overall since manager Joe Maddon began the tradition in 2008.
It would appear to be an appropriate choice, as weather forecasts predict temperatures ranging from 38 to 63 degrees for this upcoming four-game series.
• Doubront is 2-1 with a 3.91 ERA in seven career appearances (four starts) against the Rays. Tampa Bay's hitters have posted a .302/.416/.381 batting line in a combined 77 plate appearances against Doubront. Rays shortstop Yunel Escobar leads the way with four hits in 10 at-bats against him.