Blue Jays-Rays preview

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Tampa Bay Rays right-hander Alex Cobb will take the mound in the big leagues on Friday for the first time in 23 months.

It's been a long road back from Tommy John surgery for Cobb, who will face the Toronto Blue Jays in the series opener.

Cobb hurt his elbow in last year's spring training and had his surgery in May, hopeful he could make a summer return to the rotation. Instead of July, it's September, so the return means that much more to him.

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"It wasn't like it was smooth," Cobb told the Tampa Bay Times. "Some people just pick up a ball and they're like, 'OK, the pain's gone.' With me, it was like, this kind of hurts a little more than before I got the surgery."

Cobb's rehab was longer than expected - he had to be activated Monday per rehab guidelines, and he's in position to get five starts in September to give him confidence for a return to health.

Cobb had an ERA under 3.00 in each of his last two seasons, posting a 10-9 mark with a 2.87 ERA in 2014 after going 11-3 with a 2.76 in 2013. Much has changed since his last outing in 2014 - the Rays changed managers, and much of the lineup around him has changed as well.

The Rays (56-76) come home having dropped four of six games on a road trip, and they face a Toronto team leading the American League East at 76-57 and having won five of six games. Tampa Bay actually has a 7-6 edge in the season series, although the Jays took two of three in the most recent series.

Toronto has a new pitcher to throw at the Rays in left-hander Francisco Liriano, who was acquired from the Pirates. He's 7-12 with a 5.22 ERA for the season, but in four starts since joining the Blue Jays, he's 1-1 with a 3.97 ERA. For his career against the Rays, he's 2-3 with a 4.93 ERA.

The Blue Jays for now are moving forward with a six-man rotation, which is less taxing on key arms late in the season but takes starters out of the rhythm and the routine they've kept for months. They're trusting their leaders on the call.

"If it helps us get to the World Series I could care less," 41-year-old R.A. Dickey told the Toronto Star on Wednesday. "I just have to do a professional job of getting myself ready to pitch and do my job when it's my turn."

For this weekend at least, that challenge is having a first-place team beat a last-place team, something they've failed to do more often than not this season.

Toronto holds a two-game lead on Boston and a four-game advantage on Baltimore, so the margin of error between winning a division and missing the playoffs is as little as one bad series.