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Finding His Command
by Jack Magruder
PEORIA, Ariz.--When lefthander Neal Cotts has command, opposing hitters hear "Sit." Cotts limited Southern League opponents to a .178 batting average in 21 starts 2003, so dominant that he not only was invited to the Futures Game in Chicago at the all-star break but also made his major league with the White Sox less than a month later.
But while the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Cotts was able to pitch through occasional location lapses in Double-A, major league hitters were not as forgiving, and Cotts was sent to the Peoria Javelinas of the Arizona Fall League to further hone his control while also getting innings after missing five starts because of midseason shoulder soreness.
"He has a great arm and he has stuff. He has a good live fastball that runs and a good changeup," said Javelinas manager Frank White (Royals), making his second AFL managerial stint and first since 1995. "You can see why the White Sox like him so much and gave him an opportunity to pitch in the big leagues.
"We want to get him to trust his stuff and throw it to the middle of the plate and let it work. A lot of times, catchers set up on the corner and he throws to the corner and the ball ends up outside. We're trying to get him to work on his pitch selection in key situations, but mainly just to get command of the strike zone and trust his stuff. Get enough of the plate to let his stuff work and still be on the plate."
Cotts, 23, was 9-7, 2.16 with Birmingham in his first season in the White Sox organization after being obtained from Oakland in the Billy Koch-Keith Foulke deal on Dec. 3, 2002. The White Sox also acquired Daylan Holt, with the A's also receiving Mark Johnson and Joe Valentine.
Cotts features a fastball in the low 90s, a changeup and a developing curveball. With that stuff he struck out 133 in 108 innings at Birmingham, an average of 11 strikeouts per nine innings. One of his keys was his ability to use the whole plate, not being afraid to pitch inside.
"If you can go in, you can really get the hitter off-balance and make him aware of both sides of the plate," Cotts said. "I'm not a guy who going to throw sinker, sinker and get ground balls, so I need to work both sides of the plate."
At the same time, Cotts walked 56 in Birmingham and his control really deserted him in the majors, where he had 17 walks in 13 innings in his four starts for the White Sox.
Cotts got his first major league victory, 7-1, against Texas on Aug. 22, giving up one run in his five innings in his third start, but had trouble finding the zone the next time out against the Yankees, walking half of the eight batters he faced while failing to get out of the first inning in a 7-5 defeat.
"It was real exciting. I can't lie; it was a dream come true," Cotts said of his initial trip to the big leagues.
He will use the experience, especially the trip to Yankee Stadium, as a building block.
"The outing wasn't very good, but being able to start in Yankee Stadium, you are never going to forget that. It made it even a little more unforgettable after an outing like that," said Cotts, originally drafted by Oakland in the second round in 2001 out of Illinois State.
"Stuff happens. You can always learn from it. Just walking the halls of that stadium . . . you go out to throw your bullpen and you have all the monuments. It's an amazing place. You get to the game after you do all that stuff, and the fans are just diehard. It's amazing. They bleed that stuff. You don't see that everywhere. It's a pretty special atmosphere there.
"A lot of the trouble I ran into up there was stuff I can correct, more like focus, throwing the ball over the plate. It's not like I went up there and threw a gem and guys were still hitting the ball everywhere. It's just a matter of me putting the ball over the plate and commanding the strike zone. Those are the things I know I can work on. Those are the positives I'm taking out of the experience."
Cotts struck out six in 5 2/3 innings in his second start, a 6-4 no-decision against the Rangers on Aug. 17, leaving after an Alex Rodriquez homer tied the game. Cotts fanned A-Rod the next time he faced him, in the first inning five days later.
"He's a competitor. I really enjoy when he goes on the mound," White said. "I like the way he competes and goes about his business. I think it's basically one of those deals where he is trying to find himself and get that consistency that he needs to go into spring training and compete for a job."
• Team USA first baseman Graham Koonce (Athletics) had four hits, including a two-run triple in the first inning and an RBI-double in the second, in a 16-1 victory over the Scottsdale Scorpions, the second game of Team USA's 12-game AFL schedule. Koonce, who was .277-34-115 for Triple-A Sacramento) in 2003, doubled and homered in Team USA's 8-1 loss to the Mesa Solar Sox on Saturday, giving him 13 total bases and five RBIs in two games. Center fielder Grady Sizemore (Indians) also had four hits against Scottsdale, including a homer. Sizemore batted .304-13-78 at Double-A Akron this season.
• Team USA will play two games apiece against each of the six Fall League teams before setting its 24-man roster for the Olympic qualifying event in Panama City, Panama, Oct. 30-Nov. 11. The games count in the Fall League standings. Adam Wainwright and Justin Duchscherer started the first two games, with Duchscherer giving up only two hits while striking out three without a walk in four scoreless innings Sunday.
• Todd Williams, a 2000 U.S. gold medallist, threw scoreless innings in relief Saturday, striking out four, while Royce Ring struck out two in two perfect innings Sunday.
• Mesa Solar Sox teammates Jonny Gomez (Devil Rays), Jason DuBois (Cubs) and Pete LaForest (Devil Rays) were tied for the league lead with three homers after nine games. The Solar Sox, one of two teams playing out of HoHoKam Stadium, had a seven-game winning streak snapped Saturday.
• Peoria's Adrian Gonzalez (Rangers) hit two homers and had nine RBIs in his first five games.
• Solar Sox righthander Aaron Rakers (Orioles) was the league's first three-game winner, picking up the decision in each of his three relief appearances. No starter had gone five innings through the second weekend of the season.