It seems especially fitting to post this story on Christmas Day as it is one of persistence and hope.
Ever since his selection at 18th overall in the first round of the 2007 draft, shortstop Pete Kozma quietly worked on his game. After almost six years of trying, the 24-year-old may have experienced his 15 minutes of fame with perhaps the most unlikely story of the 2012 St. Louis Cardinals.
Kozma became the club’s everyday shortstop in September and kept the job through the post-season. During much of that time, he was uncharacteristically good when his team needed him the most.
Following the Cardinals elimination from the post-season, manager Mike Matheny summed it up this way:
“I don’t believe that we’re here right now, and I don’t know if we would have got out of September, early October, if we hadn’t had Pete Kozma step up like he did,” the manager said. “He’s been a tremendous shortstop for us.”
Back on draft day, the choice was second-guessed by some who had hoped the Cardinals would take expensive high school pitcher Rick Porcello instead. Kozma was said to lack a standout took but also had no glaring weaknesses.
The Cardinals moved the Oklahoman ahead at a reasonable pace as he hit fairly well. However, upon reaching Double-A Springfield early in the 2009 season, his progress slowed, offensively and defensively.
By the time the right-handed hitter reached Triple-A in 2011, he really began to struggle with the bat. Kozma’s OPS the last two years were among the lowest in the 16-team Pacific Coast League.
When called up to St. Louis the most recent and only time in 2012, on August 31, his .232 batting average was dead last among PCL qualifiers. In other words, expectations were low.
As the season neared its end, Kozma played a bigger and bigger role in Cardinals wins. In a four-game road stretch from September 22-25, he victimized the Cubs and Astros with two home runs and six RBI.
In the final week as the Cards took two of three over Washington at Busch Stadium, Kozma finished the series with seven hits, six RBI and three runs scored.
In 26 regular-season games with St. Louis, Kozma drove in 14 runs (second-most on the team during that time) and logged a line of .333/.383/.569. His defense was steady.
As the playoffs began with the Wild Card Game in Atlanta, Kozma was an unexpected focal point. The 6-3 St. Louis win was protested to no avail by the Braves after Kozma dropped an eighth-inning fly ball in short left field that was ruled an out via the infield fly rule. The game had to be stopped for 19 minutes as Atlanta fans pelted the field with debris.
The ball again found Kozma at a critical point in Game 1 of the League Division Series. His eighth-inning error led to a pair of unearned runs in Washington’s 3-2 win.
Yet he came through at the plate in the ninth inning of deciding Game 5. After having been the second Cardinal to be down to his last strike, Kozma struck the go-ahead two-run single. His teammates waited to pop the celebratory corks until the unlikely star arrived in the clubhouse.
Kozma finished the LDS with an OBP of .455 and contributed five RBI, second-most on the team.
Like his team overall, Kozma’s magic ran out against San Francisco in the League Championship Series. He batted just .237 and was exposed defensively, committing two errors and several other key miscues, including an especially rough Game 7.
As the Cardinals head into 2013, Kozma’s role is unclear. He should compete for a reserve spot with St. Louis, but could just as easily find himself back in Triple-A.
Either way, no one can take away his surprising contributions down the stretch to the 2012 Cardinals.