He remembers the pitch: a fastball on a 2-1 count. He remembers the ball screaming toward him and turning his head slightly, just enough so that it wouldn't strike him directly in the face. He remembers laying on the turf, conscious. He remembers someone suggesting he give the fans a thumbs-up sign, but feeling too scared to let go of the handrails of the stretcher as he was being carried off the field. He remembers the drive to the hospital in the ambulance, and thinking of the minor league teammate who a few years earlier had been struck in the head and began suddenly bleeding from the brain later that night. That was the scariest moment, wondering what could happen next.
It has been a year since Alex Cobb was struck by the line drive off the bat of Eric Hosmer on June 15, 2013, and the truth is that the moment still lingers with him. He is all the way back from the injury -- "regarding the head injury, I'm 100 percent healthy," he said -- but there are still times when he can't help but think back to the moment. He thought about it during a start last month against the Blue Jays, when Jose Reyes drilled a ball up the middle that nailed Cobb in the upper right thigh. He thought about it during the start after that, when a hitter ripped a comebacker that Cobb got out of the way of and snagged with his glove. "Walking off the mound," said Cobb, "I was just feeling disbelief that I can keep having these comebackers happen so frequently."
Cobb was reflecting on the incident earlier this week in Tampa, as he was announcing his endorsement of the isoBLOX Skull Cap, a padded insert for the caps of youth baseball and softball players. The soft-padded inserts are made of "plastic injection-molded polymers combined with a foam substrate," according to the company, and Cobb hopes that young pitchers will wear the protective padding. He also is helping to lead the movement to introduce a similar product to the major leagues. The isoBLOX padded cap insert was approved by Major League Baseball, but after pitchers expressed dissatisfaction -- Brandon McCarthy, who was struck in the head by a line drive in 2012, said that he wouldn't wear it because of its size and the discomfort -- the manufacturer, 4Licensing Company, said it was at work on refining its product.
Cobb knows the issue will continue to face challenges, despite the recent rash of injuries in the majors (the other high-profile shots to the head include those sustained by J.A. Happ in May 2013 and Doug Fister in the 2012 World Series). "The biggest thing is that we're such creatures of habit, and to make any slight changes is difficult to handle," he said. "Hopefully we can get this thing going in the right direction and make it the norm to have pitchers on the mound with protective gear on."
For the 26-year-old righthander, it has been a long, strange year since June 15, 2013. After he suffered the concussion on the liner that struck his right ear, he ended up on the seven-day concussion disabled list and didn't return to the mound for two months. "The toughest thing to deal with was the constant vertigo every time I moved my head. It took about a month and a half to clear those issues up, and there was a point in time when I didn't know if it would get cleared up at all," he said.
It's easy to forget that Cobb was one of the best pitchers in baseball both before the injury -- he was 6-2 with a 2.95 ERA entering that fateful start -- and after (5-1, 2.45 ERA), or that he shut down the Indians in the AL Wild Card Game, throwing 6⅔ shutout innings and getting the win. Then, in the offseason, he had a minor setback, with a case of vertigo that lasted for a few days. "I'm not out of the woods," he said. "Just because it happened to me once doesn't mean it won't happen to me again. The odds are in my favor, but I'm not going to make that mistake of believing that it can't happen again."
This year, Cobb has had an uneven start to the season; an oblique injury interrupted a dominant start, and now he is working on some mechanical adjustments to get back on track after struggling during his last few outings. This, of course, has also become a lost season for the Rays: Tampa Bay enters the weekend with the worst record in baseball and is 17 games below .500 and 13½ games behind the Blue Jays in the AL East. Manager Joe Maddon has already called on a Seminole medicine man to fix the mess.
With David Price, the longtime ace in Tampa Bay, likely on his way out of town -- either as a free agent after the 2015 season or in a trade before then -- Cobb will soon take his place at the front of the rotation. He has the talent and the dominant stuff to become one of the game's best pitchers, and while the road to recovery has been long, every day he thinks that he's a little bit closer to becoming the pitcher he was. "For the most part on the mound, my thought process is so far away from my own personal health, it's trying to get outs, and it's kind of a sick mind," he said. "But in quiet moments away from the park, yeah, I do ask, Why does it keep happening? As an athlete you have to put it behind you, if you go into it with that thought process in your mind every day it's going to hinder you. You have to just go numb to the subject and not have it creep into your mind. I've become better and better with doing that.
"The biggest thing? It's really has given me a new appreciation for the game, because that could easily have been taken away from me extremely quickly. I'm just thankful for every day I have here."