Cozart back in lineup, despite smashed fingers
CINCINNATI — Zack Cozart, tough guy? With his boyish good looks and easy-going demeanor Cozart isn’t the kind of guy one would fear in a dark alley, or even on a well-lit sidewalk. But after missing one game, the second-year Cincinnati Reds shortstop was back in the lineup Monday night against the Chicago Cubs after having two fingers smashed against his bat when he tried to bunt. When it happened, manager Dusty Baker immediately jerked him from the lineup because he was having flashbacks to the 1970s. Baker was playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers when shortstop Bill Russell tried to bunt and the same thing happened, the baseball pinned his fingers against the bat, “And he broke his fingers in seven places,” said Baker. Baker told Cozart that story, which sent a chill up his back, down his back and back up again. “I was pretty scared because most of the time when you see that happen it is not a good outcome. My first thought was that it was broken,” said Cozart. “I’m surprised it didn’t swell up, but (trainer) Paul Lessard did a good job getting me back so fast.” Baker smiled and said, “Modern medicine.” And Baker said maybe there is another reason Cozart came back so quickly. The Reds were facing former teammate Travis Wood, a close friend of Cozart's. “You never want to miss facing a friend because then that friend thinks you’re ducking him,” Baker said. Cozart laughed and said even his wife texted him to tell him he better be in the lineup to face Wood.
“We played Double-A together and our wives are good friends,” said Cozart. “We hung out a lot. Coming up through the minor leagues you get close a lot more than you do in the big leagues. It’s weird and cool facing him.” One of the things the Reds wanted to do by acquiring leadoff hitter Shin-Soo Choo over the winter involved Cozart. All the talk was about when Choo arrived it enabled the Reds to relieve Brandon Phillips of leadoff duty, something he doesn’t like to do but did it for the betterment of the team. What wasn’t talked about much was that it enabled Baker to drop Cozart from the No. 2 spot to No. 7, where there is less pressure for a young player just getting his spikes soaked in a major league batter’s box. It lasted one day, one game. Cleanup hitter Ryan Ludwick mangled his shoulder with a head first slide on Opening Day and figures to be on the disabled list until mid-summer. So what did Baker have to do? He had to put Phillips in the cleanup spot and look for a No. 2 hitter. For a week, he tried left fielder Chris Heisey and kept Cozart seventh. That didn’t work. Neither Heisey nor Cozart were hitting. The No. 2 spot could have been declared a disaster area. And so could No. 7. For the first 10 games Cozart was hitting .114, including a 0 for 17 slide for life. Baker decided it was time for another change, another hitter in the two-hole. So, Zack Cozart, come on up. Come back, Zack. Something clicked for Cozart, like somebody opened a closet door and the light went on, a light that had previously been unscrewed. Over a seven-game period, Cozart banged 12 hits in 30 at-bats and his batting average rose like an Arizona thermometer in August, from .114 to .246. He had two homers, three doubles and five RBIs. “I feel so good and it’s weird,” he said. “After I got in the two-hole I kind of took off. I don’t want to say it is because of the two-hole, but that’s what happened. It couldn’t be more opposite from the way I was feeling at the beginning of the year. “I got with some of the coaches because I had things I had to fix,” he said, realizing that .114 might be a nice number for a highway, but not for a major league baseball player. “I wasn’t square. Pitches that were good pitches to hit I thought were way outside. So I squared up and pitches over the plate look like good pitches to hit.” And the 27-year-old Tennessee native is squaring up and squaring off. “My swing is so much better,” he said. It is so much better that Cozart had three hits in three innings earlier last week. The Reds finished a suspended game against the Phillies on Wednesday, picking up a 0-0 tie in the bottom of the ninth. Cozart led the inning with a single and scored the game-ending run on Jay Bruce’s single, a 1-0 victory. Then they played a regularly scheduled game and Cozart had hits in the first inning and the second inning as the Reds ripped the Phillies, 11-2. “If Choo or I get on base, you have Joey Votto or Brandon Phillips or Jay Bruce behind you, you know you are going to score some runs,” he said.
The thing about Cozart during his frutal and feeble hunt for base hits early in the season is that he still covered shortstop like a tarpaulin during a rain delay, playing defense with aplomb. For the first 17 games, Cozart has zero errors — none, zip, nada. Not even a bobble. Not one errant toss or throw. “Defense is first for me,” he said. “I tell everybody that any time I produce at the plate I can always fall back on defense. The pitchers appreciate that. If the ball is hit to me, most of the time I am going to make the play. I’m a defensive first guy, no matter how good or bad I’m hitting.”