Rust evident, but Cozart thrilled to be back

Reds' shortstop takes baby steps in return from right knee surgery

Rust evident, but Cozart thrilled to be back

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- After a long and challenging rehabilitation from reconstructive right knee surgery, Reds shortstop Zack Cozart couldn't wait to play in a game again and feel normal.

Cozart finally made his spring debut in Friday's 9-4 split-squad loss to the A's. Feeling normal? Well, that might have to wait until the next game he plays.

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"At least at the beginning, I don't know how to explain it. ... I was nervous, I guess," Cozart said after a 1-for-2 day in which he played three innings. "It's been so long since I've been out there ... my heart's pounding, I haven't seen live pitching in so long. I'm like, 'Hey, relax, breathe -- you've been here.' The first at-bat, I couldn't calm [my nerves] down. The second at-bat, I felt way better, seeing some pitches."

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On June 10 vs. the Phillies, Cozart tore both the anterior cruciate and lateral collateral ligaments in his knee after slipping on first base as he ran out a ground ball. He needed season-ending surgery, cutting short what had been a solid year on both sides of the game.

Facing Oakland starter Chris Bassitt leading off the bottom of the first inning on Friday, Cozart saw three pitches and popped out to second base. With two outs in the third, he flared a single to center field. Defensively, he went backward to catch Eric Sogard's first-inning popup. In the second inning, he slipped and went down as he missed Renato Nunez's RBI single through the left side.

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"I'm thinking I'm mad because I could've maybe gotten the ball," Cozart said. "Everybody else was thinking, 'Holy crap' and gasped. A lot of guys thought I could have been hurt. [Jay] Bruce was like, 'Man, I didn't know.' [Manager Bryan] Price said something. I said, 'Hey, I felt great. I'm just upset I didn't get the ball.' That's good. That stuff happens out there."

Cozart's knee injury

"He goes for that ball to his back hand and all of a sudden, his leg slips out from underneath him," Price said. "You can't help but want to put these guys in a bubble to a certain degree and keep them protected. You know you can't do that. It was nice to see him finish off that play without any concern."

Cozart, 30, was fortunate to be setback free during his recovery and rehab, even since his early arrival at Spring Training last month. Not all of his work could replicate elements of an actual game.

"You just can't practice certain things you do on the field, especially in a live game," Cozart said. "The game is fast, and it's been so long -- nine months and a day, not that I was counting or anything. It's good to be out there. I was real excited."

Cozart had the unfortunate circumstances of his injury on his mind when he had to touch first base on his single.

"I'm not going to say I wasn't thinking about hitting the base on the base hit, but I wasn't thinking about it as much," Cozart said. "I will tell you that when [Scott] Schebler hit the line drive next and I had to run, I definitely did not think about having to hit second. I was running hard, hit second and was feeling good."

The Reds never doubted Cozart's ability to return to 100 percent -- so much that his replacement last season, Eugenio Suarez, was moved to third after third baseman Todd Frazier was traded to the White Sox in December. Suarez has yet to get any time at shortstop this spring, even though Cozart hadn't played in any of the first 10 games.

"If there was a larger concern about his availability by Opening Day, then I would have been more apt to play 'Geno' more at short," Price said. "It'd be a lot easier to switch him over to short temporarily if Zack was behind schedule than it would be to make up for lost time getting comfortable at third base. When he had the surgery and in the aftermath, we were informed that we could confidently expect that Zack would be back in time to start the season."

Cozart couldn't remember the last time he felt so nervous about a baseball game.

"I don't think I've had nine months off in my life from baseball," Cozart said. "Not only nine months; I've only been swinging for a month and a half or so. Baseball stuff is still new for me right now, especially getting into a game, seeing live pitching. It was good to get out there, facing a guy throwing pretty hard, kind of effectively wild. It was, all around, a good day to be out there, coming out and feeling good."

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Mark My Word, follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon and Facebook and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.