Cotts, Jenks deliver in the clutch

Remember the White Sox bullpen? It will be hard to forget them after what Neal Cotts and Bobby Jenks did in the World Series opener, writes Jayson Stark.

Originally Published: October 23, 2005
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

CHICAGO -- It was the eighth inning of Game 1 of the 2005 World Series when it happened.

The bullpen gate, out in the left-field corner of U.S. Cellular Field, actually swung open -- for the first time in nearly two weeks. And we had our first major shock of this World Series:


Game 4

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That gate wasn't rusted shut from lack of use.

Then, out of the mist, appeared a species most anthropologists had come to believe had been declared officially extinct. The technical term for it, we believe, is the Relieverus WhiteSoxerius.

We hadn't had a confirmed sighting of any members of that species since way back on Oct. 11. So just imagine the thrill of this moment -- 41,206 people spotting a living, breathing White Sox reliever in the flesh, all at once.

And best they all could tell, Sox manager Ozzie Guillen was even waving for them on purpose. Just, apparently, to prove he still could.

"I felt good that Ozzie just remembered how to call somebody in," said catcher A.J. Pierzynski. "I thought he might mess up and forget how and call in the wrong guy."

But nope. It all came back to him. And what happened next was the biggest story of the White Sox's 5-3 win over the Astros in the opener of one of the most unlikely, most compelling World Series matchups ever.

Not only did the White Sox bullpen crew return to planet Earth, they proceeded to do something never done by any bullpen in World Series history.

Never, ever, ever had any bullpen stomped into a game in the late innings -- and found itself in a situation where the tying run was on third and the winning run was on base -- and then did what the White Sox did Saturday night.

Never, ever, ever had any bullpen struck out the side in a situation like that to keep that tying run from scoring. But that's what Neal Cotts and Bobby Jenks did Saturday when their manager remembered they were still on his team. And who knows? This World Series may never be the same.

"That was amazing, what those guys did in that inning," Pierzynski said. "To see the 4-5-6 hitters strike out in a situation like that, that was pretty amazing. You don't see that much."

Bobby Jenks
Bobby Jenks and his blazing fastball showed no signs of rust in the opening game.
Well, as we were saying, you don't see it ever. Not in this setting anyway.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, there have been only two previous innings in World Series history in which a team got a runner to third with nobody out, didn't score and had three hitters strike out in the process of stranding him.

But both of those innings involved starting pitchers, not relievers. They occurred in back-to-back games in the 1972 World Series. And both happened much earlier in those games -- first when Catfish Hunter punched out the side in the second inning of Game 2, the second time when Blue Moon Odom whiffed the side in the fifth inning of Game 3.

So it's almost impossible to compare those situations to this situation. It would have been noteworthy enough that these strikeouts came flying out of the hands of two relief pitchers. But let's not forget that these particular relievers had vanished so completely this month, they were candidates to be featured in the next edition of "Without A Trace."

Cotts hadn't pitched since Game 1 of the ALCS -- 11 days earlier -- when he cranked out seven exhausting pitches. Jenks hadn't pitched since the final game against the Red Sox -- back on Oct. 7. That was 15 days earlier.

So they essentially were wandering into a situation never faced by any pitcher in modern times:

They were being asked to pitch in a real World Series game, with the whole world watching, after two weeks of doing nothing more significant than spitting 1.8 trillion sunflower seeds and debating the existence of bullpen life on Jupiter.

Did they know they could actually take that little vacation and still come back and do this? Did anybody know whether they could still come back and do this?

Heck, for that matter, did anybody know they could make it from the bullpen to the mound without stopping somewhere around left-center field to consult Mapquest?

"I was surprised the phone even rang," said reliever Cliff Politte, a man grateful just to warm up in this game. "I didn't recognize it. It sounded a little different than I remember."

And once that phone rang, there were yet more challenges for these guys.

"We didn't know where the mounds were," Politte quipped. "They told me to get up and throw, and I ran down the stairs."

But after starter Jose Contreras gave up a leadoff double to Willy Taveras to start the eighth inning of a 4-3 game, he saw his manager racing out of the dugout. And if he'd consulted baseball historians familiar with this ritual, he'd have known this meant he was about to get gonged in favor of his suddenly reincarnated bullpen.

"They say ... we don't see the bullpen," Guillen explained later. "Well, now we see it."

Yep. So there went Guillen's team's shot to become the first staff to throw five straight postseason complete games since the 1915 Red Sox. He ought to be getting a thank-you note from the great-grandchildren of Ernie Shore and Dutch Leonard any day now.

They say ... we don't see the bullpen. Well, now we see it.
Ozzie Guillen

And who knows? He might even get a thank-you note from his own bullpen. Another few games of this, and they were going to wonder if it was time to change their deodorant.

In their five days off last week, the bullpen guys tried to prepare for this moment with several always-spine-tingling simulated games. But how could you possibly simulate this -- Game 1 of the first World Series in the city of Chicago since the Eisenhower administration?

"Well," Politte chuckled, "we turned the radio up real loud."

But no matter how loud they turned it, their ears didn't hurt, and the tying run wasn't in scoring position, and Lance Berkman wasn't heading for home plate. Which was precisely the situation Cotts inherited Saturday night.

And if that mess seemed kind of scary, it got even more terrifying five pitches later -- when Berkman fought back from an 0-2 count to line a single to left, putting runners on first and third.

Cotts took a long, deep breath and went to work.

"You try to zone everything out," said the 25-year-old lefthander. "Once it got to first and third, I was just trying to relax. To be honest, I was thinking more about a double play -- something to get us out of the jam and minimize the damage. Guy on third, no outs -- percentage-wise, they're going to score. You never think you're going to get out of that with a zero."

The Astros had been finding ways to spin situations like this into gold through the entire month of October. But not this time.

Cotts got to 2 and 2 on cleanup hitter Morgan Ensberg -- then got him to chase a high fastball. Swing. Miss. One out.

Next came left-handed-hitting first baseman Mike Lamb -- who, mysteriously, was allowed to hit against Cotts, a guy who had held left-handers to a .206 average this year. Cotts got to 2 and 2 on him, too. In came a 93-mph flameball. Lamb hacked. And missed. Two out.

Then here came Guillen again and pointed toward the bullpen yet a second time. And out lumbered Jenks, looking only slightly less massive than the Sears Tower.

By appearing in this game, the rookie closer set one of the most prestigious October records ever compiled: At 270 pounds, he's the heaviest man ever to set foot in a World Series game.

Well, assuming you believe that everybody's official weight was legit.

"Come on," Pierzynski wailed when he was informed of that record afterward. "What's Babe Ruth listed at?"

That, we informed him, would be a power-packed (ahem) 215.

"Geez, give me a break," Pierzynski retorted. "We're obviously cheating here so we can get all the records. They actually make us get on a scale."

That goofy practice can't possibly catch on, of course. But the practice of bringing in Jenks to face hitters like Jeff Bagwell? That has a chance to catch on in this town for about the next 10 years.

Not to suggest Jenks was kind of worked up when he arrived at the mound. But of his eight warmup pitches, only one came even remotely close to home plate.

Asked to estimate Jenks' pulse at the time, Politte replied: "It had to be a million. Mine was -- and I wasn't even pitching."

Jenks bounced so many breaking balls warming up, he went through three baseballs before he got to throw his first pitch. But that's just that charming way of his.

"I wasn't worried," Pierzynski said. "I've seen Bobby heave it over my head before. And then something happens when a guy gets in the box in a game. For some reason, when that hitter gets in there, he finds a way to throw strikes.

"So his pulse is up there," the catcher went on. "What's the big deal? Look at Mariano [Rivera]. His pulse is like about 20. That's just how he does it. And Bobby gets a little excitable. So what? He still finds a way."

But this was the confrontation of his lifetime. Sixty feet away stood Jeff Bagwell, the sympathetic Kirk Gibson-esque figure of this World Series. Unable to play the field. But DH-ing in this game. Making his first start since May 4. A major motion-picture script just waiting to be written.

Pierzynski and Jenks were in full accord: They were going with nonstop fastballs.

The first whooshed in at 99 mph. Bagwell waved and missed. Strike one. The second roared in at 99 again. Bagwell fouled this one back. 0 and 2.

Jenks fired again. 99. Bagwell flashed his bat. Fouled it back again. Still 2 and 2.

All around them, nearly 42,000 people were making a sound not heard in this town since Walter Payton was turning the corner. Bagwell dug in, scrunched into his inimitable stance, wagged the bat loosely. Jenks reared and launched one more time.

The radar board read: 100. Bagwell pumped and missed.

"If I got that pitch 250 times," Bagwell would say later, "I still wouldn't hit it."

It was inning over. Day saved. History made. Bobby Jenks pumped his first toward the constellation Gemini. Cue up the highlight tapes.

"If they thought I was showing anybody up, I don't think that's right," Jenks said. "It's my first World Series, my first save. Give me a break. I was pretty excited."

Afterward, both Jenks and Cotts did their best to convince us they were never really worried about that long layoff. Hey, they were fresh. They were strong. They were confident. And those simulated games had served as a baseball version of Rustoleum.

But across the clubhouse, Cliff Politte was confessing the truth.

"We knew there was nothing you could really do to simulate this," he said. "Tie game. You get to the mound, and 42,000 people are yelling. There's nothing we did, and nothing we could do, to simulate that."

After all, how would anybody in Chicago know how to simulate a World Series even if they wanted to? The last time they saw one, there was no such thing as The Beatles.

But they've seen one now, all right. And if the sights and sounds of the rest of this World Series look anything like the sights and sounds of Game 1, they just might find this Fall Classic stuff agrees with them -- and their long-lost relief pitchers.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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