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Kozma rewards Cards' faith with key homer in Game 3

Kozma rewards Cards' faith with key homer in Game 3

Kozma rewards Cards' faith with key homer in Game 3
WASHINGTON -- Leaning against the wall outside the visitors' clubhouse after Game 3 of the National League Division Series, Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak matter-of-factly told the truth. Which, in short, is that he was as surprised as anybody that rookie Pete Kozma is playing shortstop for his team this postseason.

"I think I can say this: There were probably five times this summer that he was about to come off the 40-man roster to make room for someone else," Mozeliak said. "Something always seemed to come up that kept us from doing it. In the Minor Leagues, he didn't distinguish himself. He was a No. 1 Draft pick [in 2007] who, I think, was always trying to live up to it."

Wild Card vs. Nationals

The 24-year-old Kozma was called up from Triple-A Memphis on Aug. 31 after Rafael Furcal injured his right elbow making a routine throw to second the previous day, and Kozma made his season debut at Nationals Park.

Kozma returned to the scene Wednesday and hit a three-run homer in the second inning that launched St. Louis to an 8-0 win over Washington and put the defending World Series champions one win away from advancing to the NL Championship Series. Making the story even more improbable is the fact that Kozma found himself in the middle of two unpleasant situations earlier in the postseason.

In the NL Wild Card game win over Atlanta on Friday, after first calling for a pop fly hit by Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons, Kozma veered away at the last moment and the ball fell between him and left fielder Matt Holliday. That seemed to be a break for the Braves, who trailed by three and would've had the bases loaded and nobody out in the eighth. That was until the umpires invoked the infield fly rule, sparking a controversy.

Then in Game 1 of the NLDS on Sunday at Busch Stadium, Kozma made an error that led to two unearned runs in the eighth, just enough for the Nationals to win, 3-2.

Manager Mike Matheny could have changed his lineup, moving second baseman Daniel Descalso to short and inserting Skip Schumaker at second. But Matheny stuck with Kozma, who rewarded the confidence and redeemed himself Wednesday.

It eventually came out that some of the Cards' team leaders came up to Kozma afterward, patted him on the back and offered words of encouragement.

"It was just all the veteran guys," Kozma said. "You know, mistakes happen. You see that everywhere. It's just how you bounce back, how you answer the next game, the next pitch. You've just got to keep your noses down and keep going."

Or as Lance Berkman put it: "When you're a young player, you feel like, 'I may not survive this.' Everything seems so apocalyptic. As an older guy, you've seen it, you've been bad, you've come back and been good again. I think that carries some weight coming from an older player, because you've been through if before.

"Pete's got a lot of ability. Ever since he's come up, he's a different player than he was last year when he came up. You could tell this time he was calm, he was mature, he was taking good at-bats right out of the chute."

Added Matt Holliday: "We need Koz. There's nobody waiting to play in his spot. I think that's comforting for a young player when they know they're not coming out if things don't go right. So just relax and go play. We don't need him to do anything special. We just need him to field the ball, and anything he does [offensively] is a bonus. I think that's the message. And, obviously, he's had some big hits."

None was bigger than Kozma's Game 3 homer. The Cardinals scored once in the top of the first against Edwin Jackson -- the former Redbirds pitcher and the only Nats starter with postseason experience -- and had runners on first and third with nobody out in the second. Still, with the eighth and ninth hitters coming up, Jackson could see his way out of trouble.

At least he could until Kozma ripped the first pitch he saw into the blue seats in left field, taking most of the steam out of a sellout crowd that had come to celebrate the first postseason game played in Washington since 1933.

"We had a runner on third, less than two outs, so I was just looking for first pitch in the zone, put it out in the outfield," Kozma said.

And while there may have been times the Cards didn't envision Kozma in their lineup at this point, they're pretty happy to have him there under the circumstances.

"He's been huge," Matheny said. "We had a huge void when we lost Rafael Furcal. We were stuck in a spot and we didn't have that glaring replacement, that this is the guy we have to go with. We put him in there, gave him the opportunity and he absolutely ran away with it. I just want him to keep going -- nothing different. There's going to be more distractions. The better he does, the more times he comes through like he has, it will continue to be an opportunity to show resolve and mental toughness."

For the third time this postseason, Kozma found himself in the spotlight Wednesday. For the first time, he was happy to be there.

Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. MLB.com columnist Tracy Ringolsby contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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