World Series hero Neal Cotts offers fellow Redbird Paul DeJong postseason advice
One moment, Neal Cotts was staying loose in the Chicago White Sox bullpen watching All-Star closer Bobby Jenks while he tried to protect a two-run lead. Minutes later, manager Ozzie Guillen was signaling for the left-handed reliever to enter the game to preserve a tie score and strand the runner at second base after Jenks gave up a two-run single with two outs in the inning.
This situation came on no ordinary night.
It was October 23, 2005. Game 2 of the World Series.
Chicago had won the first game against Houston, but a loss in Game 2 would have shifted home-field advantage to the Astros.
Cotts, a record-setting pitcher who played at Illinois State from 1999 to 2001, needed to get one out to give the White Sox a chance to win in the bottom half of the inning with one swing of the bat.
“It happened pretty quick,” Cotts said by phone on Thursday. “Bobby didn’t have his best stuff that day, even though he was so great for us all year. I just had to get ready.”
Cotts got Mike Lamb to fly out on a 2-2 pitch. In the bottom of the ninth, Scott Podsednik hit a walk-off home run to lift the White Sox to victory, making Cotts the victorious pitcher. The White Sox went on to sweep the series and end their 88-year title drought. Cotts didn’t allow a run while appearing in all four games.
“You don’t really have time to think about things,” Cotts said. “You’re locked in. The atmospheres are unbelievable.”
Postseason baseball is packed full of drama, and for the first time since Cotts, another Redbird takes center stage.
In his third year as a big leaguer, Paul DeJong ’15 is partaking in the playoffs for the first time as his St. Louis Cardinals battle the Atlanta Braves in the National League Division Series.
So what advice does Cotts have for his fellow Redbird?
“Just take a deep breath and enjoy it,” Cotts said. “Take in the moment. You don’t really realize how hard it is to get there.”
DeJong has become a staple in the St. Louis lineup and was the team’s lone representative at July’s All-Star Game in Cleveland.
The former Redbird belted 30 home runs this season for the National League Central Division champions.
Like Cotts in 2005 and 2008 when he pitched 1.2 scoreless innings for the Cubs in the National League Division Series, DeJong will have a strong Illinois State following this October.
“It’s honestly really cool to see someone playing in the MLB playoffs who went to your school,” student Samantha Doak said. “It’s inspiring to see people go after their dreams.”
Cotts, who is a 2015 inductee of the Illinois State Athletics Percy Family Hall of Fame and a 2004 recipient of an Outstanding Young Alumni Award, has watched DeJong’s big-league career from afar.
“I definitely follow him and root for him,” Cotts said.
Cotts, who grew up near St. Louis in Lebanon, Illinois, was a Cardinals fan as a kid.
“I grew up in Southern Illinois, so right now I’m rooting for him and I’m envious,” he said with a bit of a laugh. “I would have loved that opportunity.”
While Cotts and DeJong have not yet met, they are bonded by the both University connection and being MLB postseason participants.
And soon, they could both be Illinois State graduates.
While DeJong graduated with honors in 2015, Cotts left following his junior year when the Oakland Athletics selected him in the second round of the 2001 MLB Draft.
After a 10-year big league career, he now works at a baseball facility in the Chicago area, along with a few other former Redbird players, and coaches his children.
This fall, he picked up an online class at Illinois State and is working on securing an internship for next semester. The two-time member of the Missouri Valley Conference Scholar-Athlete team hopes to finish his degree in the spring, nearly 15 years after his World Series heroics.