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Remember That Guy: White Sox reliever Neal Cotts

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NBC SPORTS CHICAGO

Remember That Guy: White Sox reliever Neal Cotts

Neal Cotts was one of the stars of the 2005 White Sox bullpen, the top lefty in Ozzie Guillen’s relief corps.

Remember that guy?

Neal James Cotts celebrated his 40th birthday a week ago; he was born March 25, 1980 in Lebanon, Illinois, not far from St. Louis. A Lebanon High School product, he attended Illinois State and as a second round pick by the Oakland A’s (69th overall). At the time, Cotts was the second highest drafted player in ISU history, after Dave Bergman (second round, 36th overall in 1974).

Cotts started his pro career in 2001, posting a 2.73 ERA with 78 strikeouts in 66 innings across Vancouver (low-A) and Visalia (high-A). The next year for Modesto (high-A), he was 12-6 with a 4.12 ERA but struck out well over a batter an inning (178 K in 137.2 IP). He looked promising, if only he could cut down his walk totals (5.7 BB/9).

On Dec. 3, 2002, the White Sox traded Keith Foulke, Mark Johnson, Joe Valentine and cash to the A’s for Billy Koch and a player to be named later – Cotts – whom Oakland sent to the Sox on Dec. 16.

Cotts was excellent for Birmingham (AA) in 2003 and even started for the U.S. (under manager Carlton Fisk) in the 2003 Futures Game at U.S. Cellular Field. He made his MLB debut Aug. 12, 2003 at the Angels as a starter, going 2 1/3 innings, allowing two hits, two runs and six walks – including four in the third inning – and one strikeout (Shawn Wooten).

Cotts made four starts for an 8.10 ERA and was sent back down at the end of August. He had an encouraging minor league season, sporting a 2.16 ERA in 21 starts at Birmingham while striking out 133 in 108 1/3 innings, though the walk totals were still high. He made the transition to the bullpen in 2004, making only one start in 56 appearances. He struggled to adjust to his new role, finishing with a 5.65 ERA while striking out fewer than a batter an inning.

What happened in 2005, however, nobody would see coming.

Cotts walked a batter in each of his first four appearances of 2005 (five in three innings), but then walked only two over his next 13 games (10 2/3 innings). His positive roll continued, though he allowed three runs in his last appearance before the All-Star break to inflate his ERA to 2.86. He was nearly unhittable down the stretch, posting a 0.70 ERA in 35 games (25 2/3 innings) after the Midsummer Classic. He finished his season with a 1.94 ERA in 60 1/3 innings with 13 holds and a pair of saves, allowing just one home run.

Of 271 pitchers to toss at least 60 innings in 2005, Cotts’ home run rate (0.15 per nine innings) was the lowest. Here’s a fun fact: the highest home run rate (2.56) belonged to Ezequiel Astacio, with 23 in 81 innings. He was the pitcher who allowed Geoff Blum’s 14th inning blast in Game 3 of the World Series.

In the 2005 postseason, Cotts became the answer to a fun trivia question: who was the only White Sox reliever used in the ALCS? He retired two batters in relief of Jose Contreras in Game 1. Then the Sox cranked out four straight complete games. Cotts (1 1/3 innings, no runs) and Bobby Jenks (5 innings, two runs) were the two White Sox pitchers who saw work in all four games of the World Series sweep.

Like Cliff Politte, Cotts couldn’t find the same magic in 2006, as he posted a 5.17 ERA in 70 games. After the season, he was involved in what seemed like the rarest of trades – the crosstown swap between the White Sox and Cubs. The White Sox received pitchers David Aardsma and Carlos Vasquez in return.

The southpaw reliever from Southern Illinois shuffled between the Cubs and Triple-A Iowa over the next three seasons, though in 2008 he became the second hurler (after Bob Howry) to pitch for both the White Sox and Cubs in the postseason (Clayton Richard would later join them).

Cotts received the dreaded Tommy John diagnosis in mid-2009 and underwent elbow surgery in July. To make matters worse, the reliever had four hip surgeries starting in 2010. He tried to latch on with the Pirates in 2010 and the Yankees in 2011, but injuries wouldn’t allow him to throw a single pitch over a two-year span.

Cotts resurfaced in the Rangers organization in 2012 and finally worked his way back to the majors in 2013. On May 21, he threw his first major league pitch since May 25, 2009 in a remarkable story of perseverance. Not only did Cotts make it back, he turned in a career year, posting a remarkable 1.11 ERA in 58 games (57 innings). Of 330 pitchers with at least 50 innings pitched, only Koji Uehara (1.09) of the Red Sox was better.

Cotts struck out 65 batters that season and allowed fewer than a baserunner an inning (0.947 WHIP) for the only time in his MLB career. He regressed in 2014 (4.32 ERA in a career-high 73 games) and spent 2015 with the Brewers and, after an August trade, the Twins, posting a 3.41 ERA in 68 games.

The next two seasons saw Cotts sign with the Astros, Angels, Yankees, Rangers and Nationals, but he was unable to find his way back to the majors. He finished his MLB career with a 3.96 ERA in 483 games over 10 seasons. He had some ups and downs, but in 2005 Cotts was instrumental to the White Sox improbable World Series run.

You remember that guy.

White Sox 2005 Rewind: With a little help from old friend Tony Graffanino

White Sox 2005 Rewind: With a little help from old friend Tony Graffanino

In the eighth inning of Game 3 of the 2000 ALDS, the White Sox inserted Tony Graffanino into the game as a pinch-runner.

He was erased when Paul Konerko hit into an inning-ending double play. Graffanino stayed in the game at third base and was on the field when the Seattle Mariners walked off Keith Foulke and the White Sox.

The White Sox didn’t get back to the postseason for another five years.

But when they did, Graffanino was there again, this time playing for the opposing Boston Red Sox. He started at second base and had one of the best seats in the house to watch the South Siders beat the defending champs’ brains in for a 14-2 win in Game 1 of the 2005 ALDS. The next night, he factored into things a bit more prominently, though certainly not in the way he hoped.

Graffanino played for the White Sox from 2000 to 2003. He started the 2005 season as a division rival, suiting up for the Kansas City Royals before being dealt to the Red Sox in the middle of the campaign. He had himself an excellent season, and his good numbers with the Royals got even better when he went to Boston. He hit .319 and reached base at a .355 clip in his 51 regular-season games with the Red Sox.

But his defense, or lack thereof, would be his key contribution to the ALDS that season, unintentionally helping turn the tide in the middle of the series’ second game — for his old mates.

After torching Matt Clement for eight runs in Game 1, the White Sox offense wasn’t finding things quite as easy against another former South Sider, David Wells, who had the bats well silenced through four innings. Meanwhile, Mark Buehrle was atypically hittable in the early going of this one, giving up two first-inning runs — he only gave up six first-inning runs in his 33 regular-season starts — and two more runs in the third.

But the same White Sox lineup scored two touchdowns the day before and was obviously capable of banging around Boston’s lackluster pitching staff. The White Sox strung some hits together against Wells in the bottom of the fifth to cut the deficit in half, and Juan Uribe came up with a runner on first and one out. He tapped a grounder to second, hitting what appeared to be a pretty routine double-play ball.

Except Graffanino whiffed.

RELATED: White Sox 2005 Rewind: Underdogs? 14-run ALDS coming-out party said otherwise

Instead of an inning-ending double play, Graffanino’s error kept the inning alive. And after Scott Podsednik popped out to third base, the bill came due. Tadahito Iguchi hit a go-ahead, three-run homer that sent the South Side into pure chaos.


All three runs were unearned, but they still counted.

Buehrle settled down nicely, and after giving up his fourth run, he retired 13 of the final 15 hitters he faced, allowing just a couple singles. Bobby Jenks was stellar in his first career playoff game, called upon for a two-inning save in a one-run game. No matter. He retired six of the eight batters he faced, including Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon, the only hit he gave up a ninth-inning double to, who else, Graffanino. But with the tying run 180 feet away, Jenks got a pop out and a ground ball to put the White Sox a win away from an ALDS sweep.


Now, I’m not trying to revive the one-time trend of jumping all over a guy who lets a ball roll under his glove during a key playoff game on the right side of the Red Sox infield. That’s, as the kids say, tired and not at all wired.

And the White Sox deserve plenty if not most of the credit. They were no strangers to comebacks of all stripes during that 2005 season. It's one thing to be gifted an opportunity. It's another to be able to capitalize. Iguchi was clutch as could be, and his defensive plays at second base in this one were important, too, earning him an enthusiastic hug from Buehrle in the dugout after the seventh inning. Buehrle and Jenks’ efforts on the hill were just as important as a big inning at the right time.

But how funny does the world work — the baseball world, in particular — that with the White Sox attempting to erase an 88-year title drought, who should be there to turn the game around in their favor but a former teammate and a guy who was on the field the last time they were this close, half a decade earlier?

That’s team-of-destiny stuff right there.

Keep reliving the White Sox march to the 2005 World Series with #SoxRewind, which features Game 3 of the ALDS, airing at 7 p.m. Monday on NBC Sports Chicago.

 

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MLB The Show: White Sox complete sweep of Twins as power surge continues

MLB The Show: White Sox complete sweep of Twins as power surge continues

NBC Sports Chicago is simulating the 2020 White Sox season via MLB The Show during the postponement of play. The White Sox, stocked with young talent and veteran offseason acquisitions, were expected to take a big step forward in their rebuild this season. Follow along as we play out the first few months of the season.

Result: White Sox def. Twins 13-4
Record: 24-29, T-3rd in A.L. Central (5.5 GB of Twins)

W: Dylan Cease (3-3)
L: Rich Hill (3-4)

Game summary: Things couldn’t have gone any better for the White Sox in this weekend’s four-game series vs the Twins. The South Siders took the first three games by offensive force and the finale was no different.

Nick Madrigal’s unlikely tenure in the cleanup spot has mostly been underwhelming, until Sunday afternoon. The slight-in-stature second baseman ripped a three-run homer to left to give the White Sox the lead in the first.

Chicago doubled the advantage in the second, when Edwin Encarnacion slugged a two-run homer and Eloy Jimenez drilled a solo shot. Jimenez remains the gift that keeps on giving, as he now has 19 long balls on the season, second in the American League and already a career-high. The White Sox led 6-0 after two frames.

Meanwhile, Jose Abreu continued his torrid stretch. The first baseman extended his hitting streak to 17 games, going a perfect 4-for-4 on Sunday. He also went deep twice: a two-run homer in the fifth and a three-run blast in the eighth. His five-RBI night ensured this was yet another blowout vs. the division leaders.

The White Sox clobbered the Twins 13-4 for their sixth straight win and suddenly sit just 5.5 games back in the AL Central.

White Sox lineup:

Edwin Encarnacion: 2-5, HR (15), 2 RBI, 2 R (.312 BA)
Eloy Jimenez: 3-5, 2B, HR (19), RBI, 3 R (.270 BA)
Yoan Moncada: 1-4, R (.258 BA)
Nick Madrigal: 1-5, HR (6), 3 RBI, 3 R (.246 BA)
Jose Abreu:  4-4, 2 HR (17), 5 RBI, 3 R (.309 BA)
Tim Anderson: 1-5, RBI (.296 BA)
Luis Robert: 1-4 (.240 BA)
Yasmani Grandal: 1-5, R (.295 BA)
Nomar Mazara: 1-5, RBI (.244 BA)

Scoring Summary:

Top first

Nick Madrigal homered to left field, Edwin Encarnacion and Eloy Jimenez scored. 3-0 CHW.

Top second

Encarnacion homered to left field, Yasmani Grandal scored. 5-0 CHW.
Jimenez homered to center field. 6-0 CHW.

Bottom second

Mitch Garver homered to center field. 6-1 CHW.

Bottom fourth

Garver homered to left field, Josh Donaldson scored. 6-3 CHW.

Top fifth

Jose Abreu homered to center field, Madrigal scored. 8-3 CHW.

Top seventh

Tim Anderson singled to center field, Yoan Moncada scored. 9-3 CHW.
Nomar Mazara singled to second baseman, Abreu scored. 10-3 CHW.

Top eighth

Abreu homered to left field, Jimenez and Madrigal scored. 13-3 CHW.

Bottom ninth

Eddie Rosario doubled to center field, Donaldson scored. 13-4 CHW.

Notable performance: The home run played a vital role in this series sweep of the Twins. The White Sox hit 14 long balls as they completely eviscerated the division leaders in four games.

Next game: Monday, May 25 - Game 54: White Sox at Orioles (Reynaldo Lopez, 4-2, 4.36 ERA vs Asher Wojciechowski, 1-5, 4.89 ERA)

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