Cozart putting up rookie-of-the-year numbers

Zack Cozart looks so young that older women want to take him by the hand to a carnival to buy him cotton candy and balloons.

And in this day of hair-covered faces on major-league baseball rosters, where razors in the clubhouse are frowned upon, there isn’t one loose whisker on Cozart’s chin.

He is so Mississippi that one can almost hear the calliope and steamboat whistles when they stand next to him.

Cozart is old-school rookie — be seen but seldom heard and it is best to stop, look and listen around your teammates.

Unlike rookies like Bryce Harper, who some think was found under a burning bush, Cozart paid his dues, with interest, in the minor leagues.

Cozart is a 26-year-old native of Memphis, where folks are proud of a rock-a-billy singer named Elvis. Cozart didn’t stir much of a breeze on Beale Street when the Cincinnati Reds drafted him in the second round of the 2007 draft out of the University of Mississippi.

The other day in the Reds clubhouse broadcaster/former pitcher Jeff Brantley and Cozart were in a deep discussion.

“You don’t see this often,” said Brantley. “You don’t often see a Mississippi State guy (Brantley) talking baseball with a guy from Ole Miss.”

Cozart smiled and said, “I really wanted to go to Mississippi State. They recruited me but when it came time to make a decision they had signed another shortstop and all they offered me were books.”

Cozart didn’t need books. One can’t read about preparing for a major-league career. He needed playing time.
 
“Ole Miss and Clemson were recruiting me, too, so I went to Mississippi,” he said.

Cozart didn’t take the super highway to the majors. He drove the dirt back roads and two-lane undulating highways — two years at low-A Dayton, a year at Class AA Carolinia and nearly two years at Class AAA Louisville.

“He wasn’t rushed,” said manager Dusty Baker. “He paid he dues. He gained valuable experience in the minors, including nearly two years in Triple-A. He is what you call an advanced rookie.”

Since the Reds acquired second baseman Brandon Phillips in a trade in the spring of 2006, the team has searched for a constant companion for him.

In that time, Phillips has looked over at shortstop and seen more faces than a funhouse mirror. He has played with 18 different shortstops.

Finally, he may have found a partner in the crime to steal hits with.

Cozart is not the flashy kind — no back flips as he runs to his position, no behind-the-back flips for throws, no between-the-legs throws.

He just does what is necessary to record an out or two without muss and fuss.

There was a day on the last homestand when a ball was hit into the hole between short and third. Cozart intercepted the ball as it was fleeing toward left field, where the outfielder waited to field it and throw it back to the infield. Cozart’s momentum caused him to lose his balance and he collapsed on his posterior. No biggie. While sitting on his butt, Cozart made a perfect peg to first base for the out.

“One of the best plays by a shortstop I ever saw,” said Baker, who has seen more shortstops than Phillips.

It was a musical play, Mozart by Cozart.

Cozart got his first glimpse of a major-league clubhouse last July, a call-up from Class AAA Louisville. He played 11 games (nine starts) and was hitting .324.

That’s when a freakish accident at second base ended his season. On a steal attempt, Cozart covered second and took the throw. As he made the tag with his gloved hand (left), his arm was bent at an angle of which only pretzels are designed to bend.

The injury was a pitcher’s injury — a torn ulnar collateral ligament. For a pitcher, that means Tommy John surgery. For an infielder, it meant the same, but on the plus side it was not his throwing arm.

But Cozart’s season was done and after the surgery he spent most of the winter in Arizona rehabbing so he could report to spring training on time.

He was there before anybody else, ready to go.

On a pre-season chart by one publication that listed Rookie of the Year candidates, Cozart wasn’t even listed as the best possibility on his own team. That went to catcher Devin Mesoraco.

So far, though, Cozart is outperforming his teammates. While Cozart plays every day, Mesoraco shares time with veteran catcher Ryan Hanigan.

And Cozart is in a hip-to-hip race with New York Mets outfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis for best offensive statistics for a rookie in the National League.

Their numbers are eerily similar: both have 29 hits, Cozart leads in homers 3-2, Cozart trails in RBI by one 7-8, Cozart leads in doubles 8-4, they are tied in stolen bases with one each, Cozart trails in walks by one 9-10 and Cozart has less strikeouts 22-32.

Cozart isn’t so brash as to think about Rookie of the Year at this early stage, preferring to say, “I’m here to learn every day and do the best to do whatever it takes to help the team win.”

So far, while doing the difficult job of leading off and playing one of the most difficult positions on the field, Cozart is playing his position like a ringmaster.