Zack Cozart’s name was in the lineup for the first time in a week Sunday, the lengthy gap a stark reminder of the struggling infielder’s reduced role.
Cozart, who missed two weeks because of a neck strain and a left-forearm bruise, is batting .131 with a .338 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, no homers, two doubles and seven RBIs.
“When you’re used to playing every day, it’s a little weird coming in whether you pinch-hit, pinch-run or play defense,” Cozart said. “I talked to Brad [Ausmus, Angels manager], and the way La Stella and Fletch are playing ... I’m rooting for those guys hard. My first two years, I was on teams that won, and ever since then, I haven’t been on a winning team. I want the team to win, so if guys are playing well, I completely understand it.”
“It’s been tough for him to make adjustments because he hasn’t been playing much,” Ausmus said. “But he’s been great. He’s been doing his work. Quite frankly, I hope he gets hot and makes it an even tougher decision on who to play.”
Cozart, in the second year of a three-year, $38-million contract, last started May 12 in Baltimore. He entered four games last week as a late-inning defensive replacement or pinch-runner without taking an at-bat.
Cozart is taking extra ground balls at second base to familiarize himself with the infield position he has played the least. Developing an in-game routine to stay physically loose and mentally prepared has been a challenge.
“The biggest thing is to tell yourself you’re going to play at some point so you’ll always be mentally ready,” Cozart said. “Physically, I can get ready pretty quick. You just don’t want to be sitting there and be checked out mentally, and then all of a sudden you’re in.”
Now that he rarely starts, Cozart must also fight the tendency to press when he is in the lineup. He came up twice Sunday in the Angels’ 5-1 loss to the Kansas City Royals with a chance to deliver game-altering hits but popped out to second with runners on first and third and one out in the fourth inning and flied out to left with two on to end the sixth.
“You always put a little pressure on yourself because you want to play well — that’s what we thrive on,” Cozart said. “I try to do anything to help the team win. At the end of the game, if we win, I’m as happy as anybody.”
The Angels will use Taylor Cole as an opener for Felix Pena on Monday night, the fifth straight time a reliever will start a game Pena is scheduled to pitch. Ausmus said he might expand his use of the strategy.
“We’ve actually talked about openers for everyone, theoretically,” Ausmus said. “It does make sense in that the starter doesn’t have to face the top of lineup as quickly or as often. But I don’t know if it’s going to happen on a regular basis.”
Jared Walsh, who was being groomed as a two-way player at triple-A before being called up last week, is only expected to pitch in case of emergency or in a lopsided game, but he is throwing 10-15 pitches in the bullpen every few days “just to stay fresh,” he said. Walsh warmed up briefly in the ninth inning Sunday after the Royals loaded the bases with no outs off reliever Noe Ramirez, who gave up a run on a bases-loaded walk to Alex Gordon.