Outlook: Cobb looks to improve on strong second half

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- For the first time in a while, Alex Cobb allowed runs to cross the plate, but it was still another solid outing for the right-hander penciled in as the Rays' No. 4 starter.

Cobb's line against the Red Sox in a 5-1 loss on Sunday afternoon wasn't pretty: 5 1/3 innings, six hits, four runs (three earned), one walk and five strikeouts. The first run, which came on two-out hits from Will Middlebrooks and Jonny Gomes in the bottom of the second, was the first he allowed in his last 13 2/3 Grapefruit League innings, but manager Joe Maddon felt Cobb's outing was just another step in what's been an outstanding spring.

"I thought Cobb was really good," Maddon said. "I thought he threw the ball great again. Middlebrooks and Jonny hurt him a little bit, but otherwise he was all good. Fastball was good, curveball was really good. I liked it a lot. With our group, if Cobb continues to pitch like that, we score a couple of runs, we'll be just fine."

Cobb wasn't quite as effusive with his self-analysis, though he certainly found positives to take from his fifth start -- and first loss -- of the spring. As sharp as he's been, sometimes getting work in is also acceptable.

"It was not a great, not a bad outing. It was just an outing," said Cobb, who now has a 2.33 ERA over 19 1/3 frames. "It was a Spring Training, get your work in, get up and get down for six innings, and that's what I did. It was good in that sense. There were a couple of balls I left up over the middle of the plate that got hit. There were also good pitches I executed. I'll take a little bit of both from the outing."

It was another step forward, if not as dramatically as his previous shutout outings, for the 25-year-old right-hander. While there clearly are mainstays of the Rays staff who will be asked to anchor the rotation, Cobb's ability to continue to develop into a reliable starter should help ease the transition in year one without James Shields.

"He has just been sharp," Maddon said. "He had that one outing that was not so good at the beginning and then all of a sudden, it's a different guy. It's been fun to watch. I think part of it is him understanding what's going on: 'James isn't here anymore. We have to get our stuff together here and I know I can do better than I have in the past.' I think all of that are the kinds of thoughts that are floating around in his head right now."

The key, Cobb said, is that sometimes less is more. Gaining an understanding of that, both physically and mentally, should be important in Cobb being able to bring what he's done this spring into the regular season.

"We were joking that the most complicated thing in baseball is to simplify it," Cobb said. "I feel like I've taken a good step forward toward doing that this year. That's just repetitions, maturity, getting older and getting a lot of innings in under your belt.

"I simplified my mechanics. I've really understood what I need to do on the mound to get guys out. I've also been able to combat the days where I just don't have it, I feel awful, walking out to the mound, scared I'm going to give up a nine-spot or something. I've simplified everything."

Zobrist savors World Baseball Classic experience

PUR@USA: Zobrist works bases-loaded walk, closes gap

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Ben Zobrist was back in Rays camp on Sunday morning, still riding the high from his World Baseball Classic experience.

"It certainly was one of the most memorable experiences of my baseball career and a privilege from the start all the way to the finish," Zobrist said. "Every second of it, I enjoyed. I wish it hadn't ended when it did. I felt everybody took it very seriously and wanted to represent our country well."

Now it's time for Zobrist to get ready for the regular season. He appeared in four games for the United States and had 11 official at-bats in the process. Both the Rays and Zobrist don't think he's too far behind, though. Adding up his plate appearances from early in the Grapefruit League season and his Classic experience, his 32 plate appearances put him right about where he should be at this point of the spring.

"He told me he feels real good," manager Joe Maddon said. "The part that you don't think about is that with all the importance of the game, they amp it up. It's almost like Opening Day for them, so all of the adrenaline was there. With that, he felt really good. He saw the ball well. His body felt good, everything was fine.

"It just sounds like we have to put him on a normal schedule the rest of the way, like everybody else here. He should get the requisite number -- mid-60s to 70 -- plate appearances by the time the season begins, which is perfect."

While Zobrist would have preferred to move on to San Francisco for the World Baseball Classic semifinals, he certainly will bring all of the memories of his time with Team USA with him as he gets back to the business of preparing for the regular season. He's ready to be a World Baseball Classic recruiter in the future.

"To me, it's hard to believe that anybody passes the opportunity up after experiencing it," Zobrist said. "When you hear about it, during Spring Training, maybe it's easy to say, 'I'll do it next time.' When they gave me the opportunity, I'm glad it was something I didn't wait for a second to say yes to, because it's a special experience, a once in a career experience."

While it didn't go well for Zobrist, perhaps the most unusual experience was getting the chance to face the closer he usually plays defense behind. He had the chance to have bragging rights over Fernando Rodney when the U.S. played the Dominican Republic in Round 2.

"I was thinking about taking him yard 2-0, but I thought, 'It's not going to help anything. It's 3-1 right now, one run isn't going to do anything,'" Zobrist said. "So I figured I'd take one and I regretted that later on in the at-bat, because he got pretty nasty later on in the at-bat. I thought the 3-2 pitch that he threw -- first of all, I couldn't have touched it, I don't think, where he put it, it was a great spot -- but I thought it was a ball. But [it was] strike three and walk back to the dugout. Next thing I know, the arrow's being shot into the air and another patented Fernando Rodney/Rays moment there."

Maddon not overly concerned about Rodney's workload

PUR@DOM: Rodney "shoots the moon" after saving game

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- There is no question that Rays closer Fernando Rodney has been one of the top performers in this year's World Baseball Classic. The right-hander has saved five of the Dominican Republic's six wins in the tournament, allowing just one hit and no runs over 5 1/3 innings of work. But can it be too much of a good thing?

Since the Classic began for the Dominican team back on March 7, Rodney has appeared in six games. He hasn't been taxed in any of them, with a 17-pitch inning on March 7 against Venezuela in the Round 1 opener his max, ironically his one non-save appearance thus far. But it's not just usage that could potentially cause worry, it's the high-octane nature of it.

"The concern is that on the back side of that, if there's going to be a letdown in a sense, because he's had all this adrenaline rush going on right now," manager Joe Maddon said. "He is so into it, and rightfully so. I think that's more of a concern than just pitching too often, the fact that you've pitched at such a high level."

Rodney and the rest of the Dominican team have played the entire World Baseball Classic with a tremendous amount of passion. Rodney has been as energized as any of teammates, finishing the game against Venezuela, two against Puerto Rico and one each against Spain, Italy and the United Sates with his trademark arrow shot into the air as the Dominicans have gone undefeated. The good news for the Rays is that even if Rodney is called upon two more times, it will all be over after Tuesday's final.

"For them and the way the Dominicans are dealing with this right now, it's almost like it's a playoff situation, so there's a lot of amperage going on there," Maddon said. "We'll see how this all plays out when it's over. There's going to be some kind of a 'woof' factor when this whole thing is over. He should have time to settle down and still be ready for the opening of the season."

Fuld could return to Grapefruit League action this week

Outlook: Fuld looks to bounce back from wrist injury

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Outfielder Sam Fuld continues to make progress in his efforts to come back from a tight right hamstring, with a target date for a return potentially at some point in the coming week.

Fuld hasn't played in a Grapefruit League game since March 3, and his recovery has taken a bit longer than initially anticipated, but the Rays' staff feels he is headed in the right direction with enough time for him to get the at-bats necessary to be ready for Opening Day.

[Trainer Ron Porterfield] is encouraged by the whole thing," manager Joe Maddon said. "I still anticipate him being ready for the opening of the season. It should be right after the off-day, near after that, he should be able to start playing in a game. The middle of the week, the end of the week, I would think that he would have a shot based on everything Ronny has told me the last couple of days."

Considering Fuld's expected role as a backup, with limited playing time once the season gets going, it might be easy to think that he thus doesn't need much time to be ready to go. But Fuld has had a tendency to start slowly, so the Rays want to get him enough reps so he's ready to go, especially if the need comes up for him to fill a spot for an extended period at the start of the season.

"He has a tendency of not starting quickly," Maddon said. "I remember we wanted to get him more at-bats because of that. We ended up needing him a couple of years ago, and he ended up doing really well. For me, it's still important to get him out there as often as we can."