The summer of 2021 may be one Jason Cozzi would rather forget, but lessons learned during the most trying times truly need to be embraced and dissected.
Cozzi had come off a bit of a breakout sophomore season at Bridgewater-Raritan but that momentum seemed to abate a bit that summer on an equal pace with his suddenly diminished command.
“That was rough,” said Cozzi, who has since shaken off those issues and recently committed to UMass. “Schools were talking to me a good amount at that point but I was having location issues that summer. It was a hump I had to get over.”
The 6-3, 205-pound left-hander was showing good pop with his fastball and his confidence level, never an issue, seemed to be where it should be for a pitcher throwing in the low 80s as a high school sophomore. He, in fact, pitched a five-inning no-hitter in a 10-0 victory over always gritty Watchung Hills in an early June, 2021 game. He relied on his two-seam and four-seam fastballs that afternoon, striking out two and walking two. His command was terrific as the two walks were on 3-2 pitches and the slim difference between a no-hitter and a perfect game.
But that command started to slip a bit a month later.
“It was more mental than mechanical,” said Cozzi. “I think I was overthrowing instead of being more natural in my movements.” In turn, overthrowing wasn’t doing him any favors from a mechanical standpoint. “It was frustrating because you want to be productive and efficient.”
That Cozzi, and his coaches, could indeed dissect the issue at hand enabled the Diamond Jack and Bridgewater-Raritan hurler to pull himself through that rough summer and emerge a better pitcher.
Cozzi was learning through adversity that the velocity and command of his fastball would improve with a better mindset on the mound and, yes, better mechanics. “I was struggling using my lower half,” said Cozzi. “Once I figured that out, it helped my velo and it’s been a big factor in my improvement from sophomore year to now being committed.”
Cozzi, in fact, elevated his heater from the low 80s to where it sits comfortably now at 86-88. He also mixes in a good slider and a developing changeup. We saw some of that developmental momentum during a junior season at Bridgewater last spring in which Cozzi allowed just 16 runs in 34.2 innings while striking out 35 and walking 22. His 3.23 ERA reflected an ability to battle in big spots. He permitted opponents just a .240 on-base percentage and earned his second straight All-Skyland Conference honor.
“If you want command, you need a strong lower half,” said Bridgewater-Raritan coach Max Newill. “Jason is repeating his motion a lot better. He’s done a lot of work to get stronger in his core and legs. He works hard and the results showed last spring.”
Cozzi’s and Bridgewater-Raritan’s 2022 season ended, though, in a 2-1 loss to Skyland Conference rival Ridge in the NJSIAA North Jersey, Section 2, Group 4 quarterfinals. Cozzi limited Ridge, ranked No. 6 in the state at the time, to two runs on four hits, struck out two and walked six. But three of those walks came in the last two innings when he gamely battled through a 106-pitch effort. Cozzi had shut out Ridge on one hit and just 58 pitches over the first five innings.
Cozzi was showing a polish in his game that would turn many more heads as the summer began. A recruiting process that Cozzi calls “complicated” would become much more clear during a fruitful 2022 summer with the Diamond Jacks Super 17U team.
“Jason did a tremendous job improving his command on the mound from last summer to this summer,” said Super 17U coach Kevin Cust. “He was really efficient in tough spots for us. I think some nice outings in Alabama and Georgia really helped his confidence and growth as a player. He has a lot of upside and his best years are ahead of him.”
Cozzi tips his cap to Cust. “Coach Cust knows where I came from and the steps I had to go through to accomplish what I did. He said, ‘You know you have it in you.’ He kind of gave me a reboot.”
Suddenly Cozzi was having conversations with such schools as UMass, Seton Hall, Sacred Heart, Lafayette, Rhode Island and UMass Lowell. When he shined in that July Perfect Game event in Alabama, UMass was there to see it.
“I threw twice in Alabama and everything went well,” Cozzi said. “I pitched a total of six scoreless innings. (UMass assistant) Coach (Mark) Royer was there and called me after the second game. He said he liked what he saw. That started everything.” Cozzi made an unofficial visit to UMass on July 23 and about two weeks later, on Aug. 7, he placed a call to UMass head coach Matt Reynolds and told him he was heading north come September of 2023. That complicated recruiting process had come to a sudden and speedy conclusion for Cozzi.
“I told him my family and I were excited about my decision,” said Cozzi, “and I was super pumped to be a Minuteman. It is the best fit for me academically and for baseball. They have a new pitching coach (Brandon Shileikis) and he’s already called me twice.”
UMass is a program on the upswing and its current roster boasts six players with New Jersey roots. The Atlantic 10 Conference club went 22-26-1 last year.
“Once I got on campus I realized how big of a school UMass is and it’s just what I wanted,” said Cozzi. “My high school is big and I wanted something similar. They have awesome athletic facilities and the No. 1 dining hall.” Dining hall ratings are not to be undersold, but Cozzi saw the bigger picture at UMass as well, particularly during his official visit in October.
Cozzi spent Halloween weekend at UMass with his recruiting class and took in team practices and scrimmages. “Coach Reynolds and Rorer do a great job,” he said. “The team has great chemistry. They are a family. Everyone is on the same page. You can see the players were enjoying themselves. I knew coach Reynolds had confidence in me to offer me the spot.”
Cozzi has not zoned in just yet on a course of study while his interests range broadly from Economics to Kinesiology to Physical Therapy. The more urgent decisions in Cozzi’s baseball life right now center around gearing up physically for what many in the Panther lair intend to be a highly successful baseball season. Bridgewater-Raritan returns a large cast and coach Max Newill has ratcheted up the independent portion of an already imposing conference schedule to test his charges at every turn.
“We had four sophomores and a freshman playing last year and we have a lot of talent back,” said Newill. “We have high hopes but you have to perform on the field.”
Cozzi’s winter workouts are geared to prepare him for that final spring fling with his fellow Bridgewater seniors. Right now his workouts include work with weights, a medicine ball, speed and agility drills and the usual attention to arm care.
“It’s building strength, yes, but it’s more about being athletic in your movements,” said Cozzi.
Diamond Nation’s On-Field Coordinator Travis Anderson coached Cozzi at the 15U level and has watched his development the past four years.
“Jason is a big kid,” said Anderson. “Sometimes you have to let your body catch up with everything. It’s a matter of just grinding it out and that’s what Jason did. I’m proud of him for that.”
Anderson saw a kid at 15 years old a few years ago with a great presence on the mound.
“That’s what separated him at that age,” said Anderson. “He was always a kid on the verge of something. He had the frame, a little hitch in his delivery, the size and he was left-handed. It’s no secret he had problems throwing strikes. But he worked through it. It’s a testament to him working his tail off to get to where he’s at. When he gets ahead of hitters he’s dangerous.”
Anderson is not one to mince words in his instruction and certainly didn’t with Cozzi.
“Coach Anderson has been a huge help,” said Cozzi. “He’s always very competitive. He definitely increased my love for the game.”
Cozzi’s development and preparation for college will continue this spring and into the summer when he’ll play in a college league, testing himself against a higher level of competition.
“I’m playing in the ACBL this summer,” he said. “I’d like to hit 90 by then. It’s a matter of putting on muscle and staying lean. My height and weight correlate well. I still have work to do on my off-speed stuff. Most college pitchers have a reliable second pitch. I’m focusing on that this winter. Getting the slider and change going well is important. I need to throw them for strikes and to get swings and misses.”
Cozzi’s thoughts remain almost singularly on what lies ahead in the spring when he’ll steer the Panthers’ rotation and should benefit from a robust offensive attack.
“Last year was pretty good,” said Cozzi of the 15-13 Bridgewater-Raritan season, “but we didn’t achieve enough. We lost in the semis in the county and early in the states.” Both of those losses were to Ridge.
“We are a team to look out for this year,” he said. “We have depth. We’re excited for the season. Our team chemistry is ridiculous. A lot of us have played together since 9U and Cooperstown.”
Newill says Cozzi is ready for his final run at high school glory.
“Jason is a great competitor,” says Newill. “He has a great fastball with a great spin rate from the left side. And he mixes in the slider. Once he got a hold of his command he took it to the next level as a pitcher. As he learns the finer points of pitching it will be fun to see how high his ceiling goes at the next level.”
For now, Cozzi and his boys are focused on their four months together in the spring during which they plan to make powerful and lasting memories.