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Cozart aiming for a complete season in 2014

Reds shortstop keeping up-the-middle approach that worked in second half last year

Cozart aiming for a complete season in 2014

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Reds shortstop Zack Cozart has always been the type to set goals for himself. He chooses not to share the exact numbers, but this spring he has pushed those numbers higher than in years past.

And based on the way he finished last season, he's certainly justified in doing so.

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Cozart got off to a dreadful start to the 2013 campaign, before having an epiphany of sorts. Sitting in the clubhouse before a late-May contest against Matt Harvey and the Mets, he decided his only focus at the plate would be to try and hit singles up the middle.

There would be no thinking about mechanics, no thinking about past plate appearances, no over-analyzing the pitcher.

That night, Cozart went 4-for-4 off Harvey, sparking a turnaround that he's confident will carry into 2014.

"I've raised [my goals] a lot more than in the past, just solely based off how confident I am off the end of last year," he said. "In those last two or three months I just stuck to an approach, and it worked."

Cozart firmly believes that such a simple switch in philosophies was all it took to spark his renaissance. He hit .236 in the first half of the season compared with a .282 mark after the break. He also played in a career-high 151 games, but didn't seem to wear down at all as the season progressed.

"I don't really know what my stats were through two months, but I feel like I was hitting around .200 and pulling a lot of balls," Cozart said. "I told myself, 'It can't get any worse. I'm going to be stubborn about it and go up there and try to hit the ball up the middle every time.'"

Cozart hit 15 home runs during the 2012 season, and manager Bryan Price believes he's capable of more. Yet Price sees Cozart's power potential as both a blessing and a curse.

"He's got enough pull power to hit some home runs, and I think that can be very seductive," Price said. "However, I think he's a better hitter gap to gap, with that approach and not so pull-oriented."

Like Cozart, Price is setting the bar higher than in years past for his shortstop. Price likes Cozart's improved approach and his confidence at the plate. But -- like everything else in the sport -- it isn't that simple.

"Great seasons come from great consistency," Price said. "This is one of the more difficult games to maintain that over the course of such a demanding season.

"We certainly think he's capable. We all feel his ceiling is much higher."

In eight games this spring, Cozart is hitting .300 (6-for-20) with a .400 slugging percentage, and three runs scored.

But unlike in years past, Cozart isn't taking stock in his spring numbers. He used to keep a sharp eye on his batting average throughout the Cactus League. Now, even though the results are there, he's feeling frustrated with the process.

"To be honest with you, I haven't felt that great," Cozart said after playing six innings in a loss to Texas on Monday. "I've had some results, getting hits and stuff. It's still a work in progress. I'm still being pretty stubborn about trying to go up the middle or the other way. Today I was actually 0-for-3, and I felt better today than I have all spring. That's how baseball is."

Cozart hit .282 with a .400 slugging percentage in August. He hit .281 with a .406 slugging percentage in September. The number of shortstops with that kind of production over a full season can typically be counted on one hand.

Last season, only Troy Tulowitzki, Jed Lowrie, Ian Desmond and Jean Segura batted above .280 and slugged above .400, while spending a full season at short.

Should Cozart join that club this season, it would be a major boost to the Reds' offense. And if he does, it will all relate back to one summer night when he was mired in one of the worst slumps of his career.

"That was eye-opening for me, that Harvey game," Cozart said. "When you have that approach, it simplifies everything. You go up there with that one thought. You're not thinking about mechanics. All of a sudden you're just thinking up the middle. Then you see the ball, and you hit it."

AJ Cassavell is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @ajcassavell. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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