ST. LOUIS — For Neal Cotts, the thrill of returning to a major league game after an absence of 1,455 days is nothing compared to the joy that his amazing comeback has brought to his family and friends.
The 1998 Lebanon High School graduate battled through almost four years of physical setbacks before the Texas Rangers called him up on May 21.
Since then, he has been one of the hottest relief pitchers in the American League.
And he deflects all of the credit for that success to his large support group, which has been with him virtually every step of the way.
"The best part about getting back up here is that everyone has been a part of it," he said. "Family, friends, everybody. And they're enjoying this as much as I am -- maybe even more."
Team Cotts includes his parents Jack and Jane, wife Jaime, and hundreds of supporters from the tiny town of Lebanon, who have served as his lifeline through all of the ups and downs of a lengthy and arduous comeback.
The left-hander continued a dream month by picking up the win in the Rangers' 6-4 triumph at Busch Stadium on Friday night.
In front of around 35 supporters, Cotts threw a scoreless eighth inning and was rewarded when the Rangers scored twice in the top of the ninth to break a 4-4 tie.
The win was his first in eight appearances at Busch Stadium. It came in front of his 4-year-old son Madden. He also has a daughter, Stella, who is almost 2.
"It's exciting being back home and even more exciting to pitch in front of all of my friends," he said after the contest.
Cotts has been on fire since his return. He carried a 4-1 mark with an 0.52 ERA into play Saturday. In 15 appearances, he has allowed one run while striking out 17 and walking just seven in 17 1/3 innings.
Born in Belleville, Cotts has not allowed a run in his last eight outings covering nine innings. His four wins in June ties him for the major league lead along Bartolo Colon and Chris Tillman.
"He's done everything we've ask of him and even more," Texas manager Ron Washington noted. "We're lucky to have him."
After his almost four seasons out of the majors, Cotts made his return on May 21 with a scoreless inning in a 1-0 loss to Oakland. The next night, he tossed two scoreless innings in a 3-1 win. Two weeks later, he recorded his first victory since May 25, 2009 in a 3-1 triumph over Kansas City.
Jack and Jane Cotts were at the Ballpark in Arlington for their son's return. Jack got a huge kick out of seeing his son back in action on a major league mound.
"I always promised him that if he made it all the way back, I would be there to see it, no matter where it was," Jack said. "I wasn't going to break that promise."
Jack Cotts almost didn't make it. He received the call from Neal just after midnight and got on a 9 a.m. flight to Dallas. But the trip was slowed by several travel snafus and the Cotts' didn't arrived at the stadium until the sixth inning.
Neal entered the game in the ninth and set the side down in order. His parents were there to see every pitch.
Cotts says he never felt like giving up baseball although the comeback trail had its share of pitfalls. Still, the former baseball, basketball and soccer star for the Greyhounds was determined to get back to the highest level.
"I wanted to be able to get out there and pitch and if it didn't work out, at least I would know that I tried and gave it my best shot," he said. "I didn't want to leave and know that I didn't try my best to get back out there."
Jaime was one of the driving forces in the comeback.
"Baseball is in his heart, it always has been," she said. "And I always told him, 'just follow your heart,' and that's what he kept doing."
Texas catcher A.J. Pierzynski, who also caught Cotts when he was with the White Sox, is impressed with the determination of his battery mate.
"He deserves a lot of credit for continuing to follow his dream -- and to have it come true again," he said.
Nowhere is Cottts loved as much as in Lebanon, where he is treated like a hometown hero. A Chicago-area resident in the off-season, Cotts returns to Lebanon at every opportunity.
"It's such a small town, everyone knows everyone else," he said. "It's amazing how many people from high school and just around the town watch and follow everything that I do. It means a lot."
It appears as though Cotts has carved a nice niche with the Rangers. A southpaw specialist, he can be used for one out or a couple innings.
Jack says his son is, "pitching as good as I've ever seen him pitch."
Cotts tends to agree. He says he learned a lot along on the lengthy comeback road.
"Growing older, you pick up things," he says. "Including the mental part of it too."
Cotts won a World Series title with the White Sox in 2005. He pitched in all four games of the sweep and recorded the victory in Game 2 -- a 7-6 triumph.
Yet he is just as proud of his recent exploits.
"It's been a long time -- but it's all been worth it," he said.