By Hal McCoy
For as long as anybody would listen, and the media was all frozen ears, Cincinnati Reds shortstop Zack Cozart thawed out in front of his locker early Monday evening and gave his personal ‘State of the Reds.’
In his world, things aren’t as bad as the baseball world would have you believe. And that’s a good thing. Whether he believes it or not, he has to think it.
“I believe, and everybody in this clubhouse, believes we are better than people outside the clubhouse believes,” said Cozart. “And we are out to show that.”
SO HOW MUCH better does Cozart believe the rebuilding, retooling, reloading Reds will be? Does he mean they won’t lose 100 games, as some believe? Does he believe they won’t finish last in the National League Central, as most people believe? And does he have the audacity to predict the Reds will compete for a division title or a wild card spot?
Cozart is the kind of guy everybody wants to see succeed. He is low-key, he is baby-faced, he is self-deprecating, he is quiet, reserved and polite.
And he is one heck of a shortstop.
HE WAS A sought-after man Monday afternoon after the Reds’ Opening Day 6-2 win over the Philadelphia Phillies. Cozart went 3-for-3 and hit a sacrifice fly in the eighth inning to tie the game, 2-2.
It was nice to see happy faces and hear optimistic comments in the post-game clubhouse. Realism will strike soon enough.
Consider though: Cozart’s three hits? They were the only hits the Reds had through seven innings. And Joey Votto, The King of Swing, struck out his first three times before banging a two-run single in the eighth inning to give the Reds a 4-2 lead.
“That’s why I’m paid the big bucks,” he said of his big hit after playing The Mighty Joey with three previous strikeouts.
JUST REMEMBER THAT the Phillies are not very good, might finish last in the National League East and might even lose more games than the Reds? At least the Reds sent six players onto the field for Opening Day that were recognizable: Votto, Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce, Cozart, Devin Mesoraco and Billy Hamilton. The Phillies lineup, except for Ryan Howard, looked like a roster from the WPP (Witness Protection Program).
Casting aside that it was the Phillies, the Reds’ pitching, a part of the team most maligned, was stunningly good.
CUBAN DEFECTOR Raisel Iglesias, making his Opening Day debut, gave up a two-run home run in the second inning and nothing more. His 90-pitch six innings resulted in two runs, six hits, no walks and seven strikeouts.
Then the Reds’ bullpen, another WPP roster, pitched three hitless innings and only one Phillie reached base, a walk by Tony Cingrani.
But Jumbo Diaz, Cingrani, Ross Ohlendorf and J.J. Hoover turned the Philadelphia spigots off and tightened the handle so nobody could turn it.
Iglesias, of course, was an EMT starter because the Reds have an entire starting rotation on the disabled list — Homer Bailey, Anthony DeSclafani, Michael Lorenzen, John Lamb and Jon Moscot.
So it could have been a nerve-tingling afternoon for Iglesias. But he said the only thing that bothered him was the finger-tingling cold. Of course, who would the Phillies bother these days? And Iglesias most likely faced more tension and pressure while standing on the mound in Cuba.
SPEAKING THROUGH a translator after the game, Iglesias said, “At the beginning of the game I felt kind of down because of the weather. It was affecting me a little bit but I just picked everything up and tried to throw my pitches the best way I can.”
Somebody asked about butterflies (has anybody ever really swallowed a butterfly and had one in their stomach?) and Iglesias was emphatic. “No, no, no. I didn’t feel any pressure on me. It was just one more game and I just went out there to do my job. I just did the best I could to help my team win.”
Mission accomplished, with style and verve.
MEANWHILE, COZART continued to spread his message before the Reds took a day off Tuesday savoring the sweet taste of victory instead of licking wounds.
“I’m so happy the team played as well as it did,” he said. “I’ve said it over and over today, that was a really good team win. Pitchers did great, defense, hitting (well, in the eighth inning when somebody other than Cozart got a hit and the Reds scored five times).”
Other than ‘The Starting Six,’ the roster is populated by strangers and prospects and Cozart was asked how that feels?
“Actually, I’m kind of curious, to be honest, because you don’t know what they are going to bring to the table,” he said. “We know they have talent. But it is a whole different ball game when you are out there and the spotlight is on you and the big crowds. I’m confident the young guys are going to help us out, take the challenge and compete and that’s all you can really ask for.”
AND IT LOOKS if Joey Votto is going to take it upon himself to inject levity into the season.
He did something Opening Day that probably has never been done before and for sure not on Open Day in Cincinnati, which is a religious event.
When the players were introduced before the game, Votto was AWOL. They announced his name and instead of running onto the field to shake hands with his teammates and line up on the foul line, like every player in the history of the franchise has done, Votto didn’t appear. Was never in line.
After the game he was asked politely if he was, uh, indisposed at the time. He laughed and said, “No, I did it on purpose. I’ve done my LeBron and I’ve done my Reynaldo and now I’ve done my no-show.”
In Votto’s case, as long as he shows up in the batter’s box he can skip all the pomp, circumstance and folderol before any game.