With their eyes on the prize in an effort to get their 12th World Series Championship, the St. Louis Cardinals have demonstrated the tenacity and mental toughness any fan would want to see in their ball club. Chris Carpenter has fought back from Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, Allen Craig has shown the power and production to necessitate him being in the lineup daily, and the Redbirds have also overcome a potentially devastating injury to shortstop Rafael Furcal.
In a game that saw the Redbirds lose to a tune of 8-1 on August 30th, Rafael Furcal’s season ended. As if Edwin Jackson‘s 10-strikeout performance against his former mates wasn’t bad enough, Furcal tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. After a 6th inning throw, the shortstop said he felt a pop that was “really bad.” His season was over with a final line of .264 batting average, 5 homers, 49 RBI, 69 runs, and 12 steals.
Immediately following the potentially post-season crushing news, the St. Louis Cardinals called up Pete Kozma, who was hitting just .232 in 131 games this season for the Memphis Redbirds. Since Kozma was largely unproven, many Cardinals fans were scratching their heads at the fact that little-known Kozma was chosen to start over other prospects. I’m sure several more fans were calling for the heads of management on a platter after his first 15 games came and went without any real production at all.
It’s easy to claim this now, but I was one of those people who wanted the guy to get a real shot at things, believing that Mozeliak and Co. knew what they were doing. Then came Kozma’s multi-hit barrage of late, beginning with his first homer on September 23, and continuing even now. 9 of his 14 RBI have come in the last 7 games, 4 of those being multi-hit, multi-RBI games.
If you think about it, being forced into game action as a replacement for a very noteworthy shortstop can’t be easy. At just 24, it must have been a huge surprise to him to get the call after a less than stellar minor league season. Asked recently though about his confidence, Pete Kozma was unflinching to say the least, remarking, “I think anybody would feel confident if they keep on getting hits in big spots. I’m seeing the same pitches as in the beginning (of my call-up), but maybe the ball’s just falling a little bit more now.”
The man has already got 2 homers, 5 doubles, 3 triples, and a steal of home to his credit. An improved .338 average now accompanies him, with an OPS of .975 and OBP of .375. Asked if he thinks there is a Kozma phenomenon around St. Louis now, he said, “I really can’t say that. I haven’t changed at all, and I’m just lucky to be here.”
He continued in a very humble tone, saying, “I’ve had my share of hot streaks before. I guess people haven’t seen it yet though, because I was in the minor leagues.” I guess it’s possible that Pete Kozma could just be a flash in the pan, but I find that difficult to believe. His work ethic, demeanor, and spirit all seem pure and almost too good to be true. Mike Matheny gave him the ultimate compliment, saying that he believes that Kozma is who he is and maintains constancy in all things.
Matheny also said, “That spark that we’ve talked about needing, a lot of times, does come from a young guy. We needed somebody to step up. Who would have thought it was going to be Pete Kozma? I couldn’t have told you that it would be, but I believed in him.”
Looking towards the future, Rafael Furcal is signed for next season, and there is no guarantee that the Redbirds will make any kind of long-term commitment to Kozma. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind though that Kozma’s continued success would make him probably a permanent fixture at least as a backup infielder.
The best part of all is that defense is Pete Kozma’s best tool of all, and even when his hot bat cools, the defense will still remain. A natural at the position, his range is better than Furcal’s at his age, and his arm is an absolute cannon. Add to that the offensive prowess, and Kozma really feels like he belongs in The Show. That certainly wasn’t the case last season, when in 16 games with the Cardinals, Pete was a mere 3 for 17.
Finally, I think Matheny is even getting the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mentality down pat. He said after Sunday’s game, “Don’t mess with it if it’s working where it is, especially for a young player. It’s not as easy hitting up in the lineup, because the psychology of it is different. He’s doing a great job where he is. That’s what we want.”
At 6’0″ 170, Kozma could be the David (no pun intended) of this year’s post season run. Certainly, Kozma’s youth is a shot in the arm, and continued success should be on the horizon.