ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Both were enjoying wonderful seasons when baseball was taken away because of injury.

For Clay Buchholz, it began with soreness he thought was caused by sleeping awkwardly.

For Alex Cobb, it was a line drive that crashed into his skull.

There was doubt either would come back this season. But Monday night they face each other under the dome of Tropicana Field, and the bright lights of playoff baseball.

Boston’s Buchholz vs. Tampa Bay’s Cobb.

Pressure sits heavily on the Rays, down 2-0 in this best-of-five series.

“It’s win or go home,” Cobb said.

On June 15, it was a lot more serious than that. Kansas City’s Eric Hosmer squared up a Cobb pitch. He drilled it right back to the mound, straight at Cobb’s head.

“That was awful,” Rays Manager Joe Maddon said. “I could just see it, the line drive hitting him.”

Cobb left the field on a stretcher. He had a concussion. There was a chance he could come back.

But would he?

“The worst thoughts start going through your head,” Cobb said.

Physically, Cobb eventually began working out again, “like it was spring training.”

The mental side was another question, but Cobb tackled that, too.

“Being worried about getting hit again, I had my ways to figure out how to try and get out of that mindset,” Cobb said.

Cobb’s character proved to be an asset.

“Cobb has that bulldog mindset,” Rays third baseman Evan Longoria said.

Cobb returned to pitch two months later.

“We had no idea what to expect when he went to the mound,” Maddon said. “And this guy is pitching probably better that he’s ever pitched.”

Cobb, in his third season, finished the year 11-3 (2.76 ERA) and won the wild-card playoff game in Cleveland, shutting out the Indians for 62/3 innings.

Cobb, by the way, is a Massachusetts native. He lived in North Reading before the family moved to Vero Beach, Fla. (the former spring-training home of the Dodgers). Cobb served as a bat boy for the Dodgers and when his favorite Red Sox player visited, he had his picture taken with David Ortiz.

Today he will face Big Papi.

“One of the quickest bats in the game. He doesn’t chase much,” said Cobb, sounding like an opposing pitcher and no longer an awed fan.

If Cobb wants to know about pitching with his team down 0-2, he can ask Buchholz. His last playoff appearance was 2009, against the Angels in Game 3 of the ALDS. Buchholz was in line for the win, but Jonathan Papelbon blew the save and the Angels swept.

“We didn’t win. That’s about all I remember,” Buchholz said. “But it was a good stepping stone for me.”

Buchholz looked like the staff ace early in the season, with an undefeated record. But he was scratched from a start in late May with soreness in the collarbone area. Buchholz blamed it on sleeping the wrong way.

He eventually made two starts in June, running his record to 9-0 (1.71 ERA), but the soreness did not go away. Buchholz landed on the disabled list.

He would rest it, feel fine, but then the soreness returned during bullpen sessions.

“It was a struggle for me mentally,” Buchholz said. “The throwing wasn’t near as therapeutic as I thought it was supposed to be. I finally had to take two steps back to get moving in the right direction.”

Buchholz visited renowned surgeon James Andrews and was relieved to hear the area was only inflamed.

More rest was needed. Buchholz did not come back until September.

He looked fine, going 3-1 in four starts with a 1.88 ERA.

“His feel for his secondary pitches were more advanced than we expected,” Red Sox Manager John Farrell said, pleased they had been patient with Buchholz.

“We felt if we didn’t rush him and he didn’t suffer another setback, it could give our rotation a huge lift, which it has.”

Cobb’s return has done the same for Tampa Bay.

Two comeback stories. Only one winner on Monday night.

Kevin Thomas can be contacted at 791-6411 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: ClearTheBases


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