If the LSU baseball team needs a reliever to close out a game against Oklahoma in the Baton Rouge Super Regional this weekend, everybody in Alex Box Stadium knows Chris Cotton will get the call.
He’ll make his signature sprint from the bullpen to the mound, his trademark shaggy hair flying in the wind.
The students in the stands will chant “Kali ma” in expectation that Cotton will take the heart away from the opposing batters, as Indiana Jones’ was almost taken away amid that chant in the Temple of Doom.
“It’s awesome to have people chanting,” Cotton said. “I guess it’s something that comes along with a closer. I guess my hair and my sprint out there separates me.”
For the first time in 31 years, Tigers coach Paul Mainieri made a special rule for Cotton, not allowing him to cut his hair.
“I told him before the season, ‘My wife likes your hair long, and Samson gained strength from his long hair,’ ” Mainieri said. “ ‘You are going to keep your hair long until the end of the season, then you can cut it before you go into pro ball.’ ”
It’s hard to imagine a less likely candidate than Cotton to be the center of attention. He arrived anonymously from Shreveport’s Byrd High School four years ago and quietly attended walk-on tryouts, not even realizing he had to fill out paperwork first.
“Honestly, I wasn’t expecting to make the team,” he said. “They didn’t even know who I was. ... I just showed up in street clothes with a uniform and kept coming back.”
Cotton was one of 30 freshmen who participated, and he didn’t have eye-popping stuff.
“He was topping out at about 78 miles an hour on the gun,” Mainieri said. “I remember our pitching coach saying, ‘He doesn’t have a good enough arm.’ I said, ‘I don’t know. Let’s wait and watch him a little bit more.’ And after about 20 strikes in a row, I said, ‘This kid deserves a longer look.’ ”
Mainieri said Cotton “didn’t have a great arm or a great breaking ball, and he wasn’t overpowering,” but left-handers who throw strikes have something going for them. So Cotton was one of five players who were brought back for an extended look.
First baseman Mason Katz remembers the first time he faced Cotton.
“He threw changeups, and I was like, ‘I do not like that at all; he can pitch here,’ ” Katz recalled. “From then on, every time he came in, he got the job done, and he only built himself up into what he is now through hard work and just learning.”
Matt Fury, who was an infielder and bullpen catcher, made the team during the same tryouts.
“His changeup was actually difficult to catch,” said Fury, now an equipment manager with the team. “It just seems to fall off the table right at the moment when you want to go out and get it, so it takes discipline as a guy catching him to sit back and let the ball work toward you. That caught my eye immediately. I knew that was a special pitch.”
Fury said Cotton made his biggest strides when he developed a better breaking ball to go with his special changeup and not-so-fastball. They were teammates on the Alexandria Aces of the Texas Collegiate League after their freshman season, and Cotton dedicated the summer to upgrading his breaking ball — which isn’t exactly a slider and isn’t exactly a curveball.
Obviously Cotton doesn’t fit the mold of a hard-throwing closer. He said he “throws strikes, keeps the ball down and moves it around.”
“Chris just gets on the mound,” Katz said, “and he does his windup and throws and basically says, ‘Here you go. Hit it if you can.’ ”
Most opponents can’t: They’re batting just .164 against Cotton, who has a 1.29 ERA and just one blown save in 17 chances.
“Four years ago, I did not expect to be here,” he said. “Playing for LSU has been a dream. I’m living a dream I’ve had since growing up as a child.”
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