Jason Ivester

State of the Hogs: Zack Cox Primed for Fresh Start with Washington Nationals

Zack Cox is primed for fresh start with Washington Nationals as baseball spring training approaches. The former Razorback has figured out the right nutritional approach to stay healthy in a long minor league season.

If you go to MLB.com and check the bio for Zack Cox, be prepared to discount some of the info. For sure, the 220 weight is wrong.

Cox is proud to head to spring training in the next week at 209. And, he probably will get lighter when he reports in a couple of weeks. He'll have to trim a beard.

“I might have to lose all of it,” he said. “I'm not sure what they have as a rule.”

That's “they” as in the Washington Nationals, his third organization of his six-year pro career. Drafted in the first round by the St. Louis Cardinals in 2010, the former All-SEC third baseman at Arkansas has also spent time with the Florida Marlins.

The Nationals picked Cox in the Rule 5 draft on Dec. 10 when the Marlins left him unprotected. He was ready for something new anyway. He'll probably spend this season with the Syracuse Chiefs, Washington's Triple A affiliate in the International League.

Cox spends the winter in Northwest Arkansas. He and wife Tiffany live in Bentonville and he makes daily commutes to workout with a pod of Arkansas products at the Razorbacks wonderful indoor facility. He follows the lead from Mike Strouhal, the strength and conditioning coach with the UA baseball team.

“The indoor facility is out of this world,” Cox said. “But the key for me is Mike. The Nationals strength coach called me when they drafted me in December. He wanted my workout plan. He said keep doing that.

“Mike Strouhal is an integral part of what happens here with the Arkansas baseball program. I believe in him. He's amazing.”

Cox, the sweet swinging lefty, does appear to be in amazing condition. He said he's avoided injuries since adding some nutritional components to Strouhal's plan. Strouhal set him up with the UA nutritionists two years ago.

“I got up to 236 in 2013,” Cox said. “And, that didn't work. I stayed on the disabled list. I got down to 213 last year and now I'm at 209. I'm able to move better and I've gotten over 100 games the last two years.

“Before that I stayed on the DL. I had the concussion in 2012. In 2013, I hurt my hamstring twice and also my calf. I realized I was too heavy.

“I still get some nicks now and then, but nothing that has kept me out of the lineup. Everyone has something they have to fight through.”

Cox changed his eating habits, something not easily done with weird hours and travel of minor league baseball. You miss dinner, and eat junk at night. There is no training table for minor league teams.

“We had instant lasagna a lot,” he said. “You can't do that. It's not healthy.”

So what Cox did was make his meals for an entire road trip in advance. He had a styrofoam cooler to haul them on bus trips.

“It was a lot of chicken and green vegetables,” he said. “I could make enough to last me about seven days before it would go bad. I'd have lunch and supper pre-made. It just takes discipline. It was tough at first, but it became easier. But it was not easy.

“Like I said, minor league travel is awful. Long bus trips. You eat when the bus stops.

“People say it's impossible to eat right in minor league baseball on the road. I did it.”

He's taken a step up from the old styrofoam ice chests for this season.

“It's a Yetti Hopper,” Cox said. “I think it's going to keep things with less ice refills. I'm looking forward to using it this summer.”

Adding weight since college was probably just about a slower metabolism.

“I can tell you that I never had a good diet when I was in college,” he said. “I ate whatever, but if your metabolism is fast, you are okay. I was 220 and hid it well. But since 2013, I've understood the right foods. I have the knowledge to eat right. It works.”

Work, that's never been a problem for Cox. He's never been shy about doing extra. Arkansas coaches raved about his approach to the game. It's not an accident that Cox has kept James McCann as his workout partner in the winter months. They are both top shelf.

“I've been working out with James since we met playing summer ball in 2008 for the Midland team in Ohio,” Cox said. “We've worked well together. It's good to have a guy who is focused. He knows his plan and we both have the same goals.”

The don't have the same phones. McCann teases Cox about his flip phone. McCann said his friend once had an iPhone but dumped it for the older model. Cox thought the smart phone was a distraction. He's all about focus.

"I'd get rid of the phone altogether if I could," he said. "Texting is OK, but I don't really like going back and forth to see if you are OK. Skip that part."

It's clear that both are focused. They also share the love of the outdoors. Cox has taught deer and duck hunting to McCann and Cox also has a great love for fishing.

“I'm a bow hunter, for trophy white tails,” Cox said. “I will shoot a doe for meat. I love deer meat. I have a smoker that my in-laws gave me and it's great. I cut the deer steaks into 3-ounce portions, marinated. They are as good as (angus) steaks. Perfect.”

The fishing is generally for bass.

“I love to go after smallies on Sugar Creek,” he said. “I just stand on the side of the bank. Tiffany loves it, too. She catches more fish than me. Be sure to write that because it's true.

“Fishing and hunting, it's a new adventure every time. I love to figure out the deer, what they are doing, the moon phases, the wind, all aspects. The moon is a huge deal. I love to hang a tree stand and I'll move them from one day to the next to take advantage of what I think the deer are doing. I love the challenges.”

Cox still loves baseball, too.

“I really do,” he said. “I've faced some adversity with minor league baseball, but I'm excited to be with a new organization. It's exciting.”

Yes, there has been adversity, but Cox said he's never been close to giving up through five minor league seasons. He hit .321 in 103 games with Jacksonville at Double A last season.

“I love to compete,” he said. “There are tough parts to the minor leagues. The travel is awful. But the games are wonderful.”

The games are his rush.

“Some people do drugs for that,” he said. “It's competing in the games for me. It's always been that way and it still is.”

There is still hopes that he'll get to the big leagues. But that can't be the focus.

“I think when you start out, you say, 'I gotta get to the big leagues, I gotta get to the big leagues,' and you say it over and over,” Cox said. “You do that so much that you forget about what you are doing. Baseball is a marathon, not a sprint. The key is to keep your attitude right and be prepared every single day. I think my attitude is great.

“I understand now that you don't get to the big leagues with the next pitch. You can't get there on the next ground ball.

“This is my sixth year and I think I've worked harder every year than the last. I try to learn and don't make the same mistake.

“I prepare for every game the same. I study what I have. If I've faced that pitcher, I get out my book on them. And, if they are new, I start with anything I can find. If there's video, I'll use that. Just keep learning and working.

“I have no regrets. I don't think I'll have any regrets because I know I've worked as hard and prepared the best that I knew every step of the way.”

Now he even knows the right nutritional preparation. And that has Zack Cox looking good. Well, maybe the beard needs a trim.

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