SURPRISE, Ariz. (AP) — Neal Cotts was taking college classes again, making a two-hour drive twice a week to Illinois State. He was 32 years old and it was nearly three years after his last major league appearance.
"I was throwing on the side here and there, but not particularly going gung-ho," Cotts said. "I was doing other things."
But the left-hander, who already had a World Series championship ring, got an unexpected extra chance with the Texas Rangers. Since then, Cotts has made a quite a comeback.
After getting called up last May, Cotts appeared in 58 of the Rangers' remaining 118 games. He matched the major league lead with eight relief victories and his 1.11 ERA was the lowest for a reliever in franchise history.
"If they wouldn't have come, I don't know," he said, when asked if he thought he'd ever pitch in the majors again after Tommy John ligament replacement surgery and four different hip operations.
"He showed his form, he has tremendous work ethic and he has a passion for what he's doing," manager Ron Washington said. "We were very fortunate to have him after he came up and did what he did for us. He's a big piece and deserves a lot of credit."
The Rangers were already in spring training two years ago when one of their scouts asked Cotts to throw a bullpen session. Cotts joined them in Arizona a few days later — and never even found out his grade on the only exam he took in a finance class. Cotts spent only a few days in minor league camp before moving over to the big league side. He was on track to make the 2012 opening day roster before straining a muscle in his left side late during spring training.
That injury landed Cotts on the disabled list at Triple-A and he didn't pitch until June. Last season, he started in Round Rock's bullpen before making his Rangers debut by retiring the side against Oakland on six pitches.
"I got the first strike, and the first out and then I think everything kind of eased up a little bit," Cotts said. "Warming up, I was nervous like it was a debut almost. I felt more of an excitement than a fear. I was just excited to get back out there."
Cotts appeared in 284 career major league games with the White Sox (2003-06) and Cubs (2007-09), before not pitching in 2010 and 2011. He was part of a World Series title as a 25-year-old reliever in 2005, appearing in all four games of the White Sox sweep of Houston after going 4-0 with a 1.94 ERA in 69 regular-season games.
Making it back to the majors has meant a great deal to the 34-year-old Cotts, who went to the World Series in his second big-league season.
"It came pretty quick, where I don't think you fully understand how hard it is," he said. "I don't think I realized until later on when things weren't as good how hard it really was to have such a good team like that."
The perfect inning against Oakland was Cotts' first major league appearance since May 25, 2009. He hadn't won a major league game since 2006 before earning four of the Rangers' seven victories over a 2½-week span. Asked what last season meant to him, Cotts chuckled while responding that it was a start since he got invited back for another season.
"I worked pretty hard the last couple of years trying to get back, and it was fulfilling to get back and be able to get out there in meaningful situations and be a part of that bullpen," he said. "It was a really good bullpen, and to be a part of it was a good thing for me."
And the Rangers.