Baseball may not have the same status in the Virgin Islands as sports such as basketball and soccer, which makes all the more unlikely how A’s right-hander Jharel Cotton discovered the game.
“One afternoon my stepdad saw me watching TV and was like, ‘Hey, get up, go outside and do something constructive with yourself,’ ” said Cotton, who was 7 at the time. “I saw a group of kids playing baseball and I was like, ‘Oh, I want to play.’ And after that day I started playing baseball my entire life.”
Born in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Cotton grew up in Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. At 16 he moved to Virginia, where high school baseball was higher-profile. In 2012, he was drafted out of East Carolina by the Los Angeles Dodgers, who traded him to the A’s on Aug. 1 as part of a package for Josh Reddick and Rich Hill.
On Wednesday, Cotton’s road led to Oakland, where the 24-year-old right-hander made his major-league debut in the A’s 4-1 win over the Los Angeles Angels. Cotton held a lineup missing sluggers Mike Trout and Albert Pujols to one run and two hits over 6 1/3 innings, earning his first big-league win and making a good impression on his new team.
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“Terrific,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said.
After Cotton’s pregame bullpen session, that is, when the rookie, acknowledging some nerves, was missing wildly with pitches up and in the dirt.
“It was not good, no,” catcher Stephen Vogt said.
Cotton admitted as much to a few teammates, including fellow pitcher Daniel Mengden, who gave a reassuring reply.
“They were like, ‘Yeah, that’s good. That means you’re good,’ ” Cotton said. “So after they told me that I was like, ‘OK, guess it’s time to go now.’ ”
Mixing a darting changeup and effective cutter, Cotton retired his first nine batters, aided by a diving catch from left fielder Jake Smolinski on Kole Calhoun’s sinking liner in the first inning. Andrelton Simmons’ line-drive single to left leading off the fourth was the lone hit he allowed until the seventh, when C.J. Cron homered to straightaway center. Cotton then got Jefry Marte to pop out for his final hitter on his 102nd pitch.
“He was amazing. He was very good,” Vogt said. “All four of his pitches were working. He was locating. He was getting weak contact and making pitches when he needed to in big spots. He showed us a lot of who he is and the competitor that he is today.”
Cotton’s debut carried a measure of anticipation, both because of whom the A’s traded for him and because in his second start for Triple-A Nashville, he came within one out of a perfect game. Melvin was eager to get a first-hand look at Cotton and after doing so compared him to another slight right-hander, Tom Gordon.
“It’s that catapult over the top, it’s a downward curveball, it’s kind of that deceptive fastball,” Melvin said. “The delivery’s real, real similar. (Cotton) has a better change.”
The changeup, Cotton’s signature pitch, moves like a screwball. He said he learned the pitch when he was 8 from a parks and recreation employee who coached youth teams in the Virgin Islands. Cotton mixes it with a fastball, curveball and cutter, which Vogt said was particularly effective Wednesday.
“It’s as good a mix of pitches as we have,” Melvin said.
By throwing his first pitch, Cotton became the fourth pitcher in major-league history born in the Virgin Islands, an archipelago with roughly the population of Roseville. He is the 14th major leaguer born in the Virgin Islands and the third A’s player, joining Jose Morales (1973) and Jerry Browne (1992-93).
Cotton induced a series of early pop-ups and retired 14 of his first 15 hitters in the air or by strikeout, which he said is unusual for him. After walking Rafael Ortega to open the sixth, Cotton got Simmons to ground into a double play on a 1-1 cutter Vogt said was “probably his best pitch of the day.”
Cron gave the Angels their lone run by homering on the ninth pitch of his at-bat leading off the seventh, but Cotton retired Marte on a full-count cutter. As Melvin walked to the mound to relieve him, Cotton exchanged hugs with his infielders, and Vogt said he and Yonder Alonso told Cotton to “enjoy this walk right now.” Nearing the dugout, Cotton doffed his cap to a loud ovation from the announced crowd of 11,866.
“After they played that walk-out song again and I was walking off, I just had to laugh and smile and wave to the fans,” Cotton said, grinning. “It was a fun feeling.”