Alex Cobb's groundball dilemma

(The Baltimore Orioles host the Tampa Bay Rays, Wednesday at 7ET on ESPN2.)

At 79-62, the Baltimore Orioles are three wins away from their first winning season since 1997, when they went 98-64 and lost to the New York Yankees in the ALCS.

Baltimore already has won 10 more games than it did last season, which was Buck Showalter’s first full season as the Orioles’ manager. In his previous three managerial stints (1992-95 Yankees, 1998-00 Arizona Diamondbacks, 2003-06 Texas Rangers) Showalter’s teams improved by at least 12 games from his first full season to his second.

Offensively, the Orioles have been riding the hot bat of Mark Reynolds. In September, Reynolds leads all of baseball in home runs (7) is second in slug percentage and third in OPS. B.J. Upton has been just as hot for the Rays. His slug percentage is first in baseball this month and his OPS ranks second.

Baltimore will be opposed by 24-year-old Alex Cobb. After going 8-13 in his first 21 career starts, the Rays are 7-0 in Cobb’s past 7 starts.

Cobb threw his first career shutout on August 23. Only four players younger than Cobb have thrown a shutout this season -- Clayton Kershaw, Trevor Cahill, Madison Bumgarner and Henderson Alvarez. He’s one of just 10 pitchers in Rays history to throw a shutout before the age of 25.

Games Left For AL East Contenders

Cobb has a groundball rate of 58.1 percent, which is the second-highest among American League starters. However, Cobb is 3-1 with a 2.17 ERA when his groundball rate is below 50 percent, and 6-7 with a 5.00 ERA in 14 starts when his groundball rate is 50 percent or higher.

Baltimore's bats better get to Cobb early, because he gets stronger as the game goes longer. Cobb has posted a 5.50 ERA in the first three innings of his starts. From the fourth inning on, Cobb’s ERA is 3.10.

Cobb is part of one of the best pitching staffs in baseball:

• Tampa Bay’s 3.25 team ERA would be the best by an American League team since the 1990 Oakland Athletics (3.18)

• 2.52 team ERA since the All-Star break would be the second-best by an AL team since the first All-Star game in 1933. (The lowest is 2.37 by the 1972 Los Angeles Angels.)

• The entire staff leads the league in strikeouts (1,176), ERA (3.25) and opponents’ batting average (.231). The only AL team to claim that triple crown in the past 25 years is the 1999 Boston Red Sox.