ANAHEIM, Calif. – In a small corner of the baseball season, where the men can sometimes be anonymous and interchangeable, Neal Cotts isn't sure he is lucky to be back in the game, or if he was unlucky to have had four years of his prime taken. But these things happen. Maybe not Tommy John surgery on top of hip surgery on top of three more hip surgeries on top of more unreturned phone calls than he could count. Maybe not the creeping restlessness of a season slipping away, then another and another and another until his whole career was slipping away. But these things happen.
"If it didn't work," he said Saturday in a Texas Rangers' clubhouse, three weeks from the end of the season, "at least I could go home and be perfectly content with myself."
He's 33, which is no time to go home. Not when the alternative is a 1.17 ERA through 45 appearances, when lefties and righties have the same hollow at-bats against him, and not when a left-handed reliever of any utility might have another decade left in him. What he'd required was a chance, someone to overlook a medical history that was as bleak as it was ample.
That it was Jon Daniels and the Rangers is of no real surprise.
"Everyone has their vices," Daniels said. "That's one of ours."
From memory, he said, there was Rich Harden, Jason Jennings, Ben Sheets, Brandon Webb and Eric Gagne. Two Februaries ago, it was Neal Cotts, who was pretty good once, then drifted away to have his elbow fixed, then his hip, and returned to college and was, Cotts said, another failed physical or two from "waking up every morning and putting a suit on and doing some kind of job every day."
Now he's part of one of the better bullpens in the American League, the way he was with the 2005 Chicago White Sox, who were World Series champions. What he endured to get from there to here puts Cotts on the short list of seasons we didn't see coming. Like Marlon Byrd, like Francisco Liriano, like Mark Melancon, like James Loney, like Juan Uribe, like Scott Kazmir, like half the Boston Red Sox, Cotts not only revived a career, but did it in what became a pennant race.
A couple semesters short of a finance degree at Illinois State, Cotts spent a good portion of the summer of '12 at Triple-A Round Rock, and failed to make the Rangers' roster out of spring training. By May, Daniels' phone began to ring.
"Anybody who'd been in Round Rock told me, 'You gotta call this guy up,' " Daniels said.
With ball one to Oakland's John Jaso on May 21 at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Cotts threw his first big-league pitch in four years. Going on four months later, among American League pitchers with at least 40 innings pitched, only Koji Uehara has a better ERA. And Cotts' WHIP – 1.00 – ranks 10th.
It's been eight years since Cotts was this pitcher, with a fastball this crisp and a slidery-slurve this obedient and a cutter this deceptive. "Maybe threw a tick or two harder then," said Rangers catcher A.J. Pierzynski, who caught Cotts with the White Sox. "Slider's better now."
And if the Rangers could get back to a place where they are scoring early runs and getting reasonable starting pitching, the way they were in August when they'd run up a 3½-game lead on the A's, Cotts and the rest of the bullpen might actually help them win the AL West. As it is, with little going right but their bullpen, the Rangers have given up five games to the A's in two weeks and are looking again at a possible one-and-done postseason.
This is part of the life, the way the season warms up and cools off, and now Neal Cotts rides it again. In his four years between major-league pitches, he and his wife, Jamie, had a boy and a girl. Neal had that time with them, so maybe there's some sense to all of this, an explanation for these things that happen.
You know, he said, he could be happy either way, if the Rangers had come for him or not, if the elbow and hip held up or not. But it's good this way. Really good. Now the bullpen phone rings and the feeling rises up in Cotts again, not just that it's his time, but that he has it in him to do this, that he's at least as big as the moment.
Rangers manager Ron Washington called him "a godsend," so it has worked both ways.
"I thought my arm was good enough still," Cotts said. "It was just a matter of getting that shot. I mean, I knew my arm was decent enough.
"Once I got going again, playing again, it didn't feel like I missed that much time. It feels pretty normal."
Going through it?
Fortunately for him and the Rangers, these things happen.