Cozart leaving knee injury behind amid hot start

Less than a year removed from setback, shortstop impressing on both sides of ball

May 10th, 2016

CINCINNATI -- There was no hesitation as Zack Cozart ranged to his left and dove to stop a sharply hit ground ball up the middle by Pittsburgh's Starling Marte in the eighth inning Monday night. Cozart knew full well who was running. Having no shot at getting a force play at second on Andrew McCutchen, Cozart quickly got to his feet and threw to first baseman Joey Votto to beat Marte for the second out of the inning.

Eleven months ago -- on June 10, 2015 -- Cozart tore the anterior cruciate and lateral collateral ligaments and the biceps tendon in his right knee as he attempted to beat out an infield hit against Philadelphia.

"It was a pretty bad knee injury," Cozart said. "I'm actually kind of shocked myself how good most of the time I feel, because the offseason was full of working out and I wasn't able to do any baseball stuff, really."

Cozart is off to the best start of his career, giving the Reds and manager Bryan Price a stabilizing presence from the leadoff position. While he was a career .245/.284/.375 hitter coming into this season, a player known more for his glove than his bat, Cozart has melded the two, seemingly putting the knee injury behind him. He is off to a .340/.343/.567 start through his first 25 appearances, including hitting his sixth career leadoff home run in a 3-2 win against the Pirates on Monday.

The injury isn't completely behind Cozart, no matter how much he is making it look that way. He has up to two hours of stretching, massage and other warmup activities facing him when he arrives at the ballpark before he starts his normal pregame routine of hitting and fielding.

It's not as extensive as what the Mets' David Wright goes through as he prepares for games despite his battle with spinal stenosis, but Cozart is doing all of the extra preparation for the same reason.

"When you have the injury, you have to make sure everything around it is working right, so you're protecting that area," Cozart said. "I know that's something that's part of coming off an injury. I'm trying to be out there as much as possible so it's easy to get in there and do that."

Price has been cognizant to give Cozart days off from time to time, relying on head athletic trainer Steve Baumann, his staff and Cozart to know the line between playing through pain and risking extended time off. Cozart had to leave a game on the team's last road trip to Pittsburgh after over-extending himself.

"I'm trying not to be so over the top that these guys are never going to get a chance to play because these guys are not feeling perfect," Price said. "He's toughening it out. There's a lot of times he doesn't feel great but he stays on the field, and I think we're all encouraged by that and think he should stay on the field."

As strenuous as his diving stop against Marte was, Cozart doesn't think about his knee when he's on the field. Well, almost never.

"When I'm running the bases, I'm sure to hit the right part of the base because that's how the injury happened," he said. "When I'm running, you'll see me look down and hit the base right and then keep going. I lunged at the base, and that's something you won't see me doing anymore."