Pete Kozma suddenly critical to St. Louis Cardinals success

In a season when the St. Louis Cardinals traded a former first-round draft pick who turned out to be a bust, another first-round prospect on the verge of that same level has sparked the team in September and could push it into the playoffs.

The Cardinals selected shortstop Pete Kozma with the 18th pick in the 2007 draft. He spent the next four years tooling around the Cardinals minor league system with little success, never hitting above .258. He even got a call up to the big club in 2011 and played in 17 games, but he hit a measly .176 with one RBI. Those are the type of numbers that get people to call a first-round pick a bust.

Then came Aug. 31, 2012.

The Cardinals called up Kozma for the second time in his career the day after regular shortstop Rafeal Furcal went on the disabled list with an elbow injury. Kozma played in only five of the team’s first nine games after his call up, but he has played in all but one game since Sept. 10.

That’s because this time around he is hitting .306 with two homeruns, three triples, 11 RBIs and 10 runs scored. In fact, he’s been the most productive hitter in the Cardinals lineup in September other than catcher Yadier Molina.

But, the great part of Kozma’s month is that he’s playing simply to help the team win ballgames instead of worrying about stats. He nearly single-handedly kept the Cardinals within striking distance of the Washington Nationals on Saturday night, going 3-for-4 with a double and three RBIs. He also made a spectacular diving play at shortstop in the ninth inning.

Contrast Kozma’s performance this year with the Cardinals 2005 first-round draft pick, a middle infielder who was supposed to be the team’s starting second baseman: Tyler Greene.

People inside and outside the organization said Greene had potential to be an everyday starter, and maybe former manager Tony La Russa’s managing style didn’t mesh with Greene’s playing style. Maybe those people just didn’t want to admit the Cardinals missed on Greene.

Greene had great speed. He was caught stealing just twice and had 25 stolen bases in his four-year career with the Cardinals. But he simply couldn’t hit big-league pitching. He never hit better than .222 and was hitting .218 when the Cardinals sent him to the Houston Astros in July. He has hit .236 in 35 games for the Astros.

Perhaps the Greene experience and Kozma’s meddling minor-league numbers caused people to brace themselves and declare Kozma as the next Cardinals draft pick to wash out. That could certainly still happen. He is working under a small, albeit good, sample size.

Kozma is currently filling a role similar to the one Ronnie Belliard filled for the 2006 club. Belliard came to the Cardinals at the trading deadline from the Cleveland Indians after seven full seasons in which he hit a combined .268 and surpassed 12 homeruns in a season just once.

Belliard hit just .237 for the Cardinals during the 2006 regular season, but he came up with key hits and was a large factor in the team’s postseason success. He hit .462 in the Division Series against the San Diego Padres and made several wonderful plays at second base to save runs.

All of this could change and Kozma could go hitless the rest of the season, but the Cardinals would likely be neck-and-neck with the Los Angeles Dodgers for the second wild-card spot if not for Kozma’s contributions.

This could also be a flash in the pan, Kozma’s few moments to shine before he falls back into the shadows and becomes the mediocre hitter he was in the minor leagues. But for now he’s getting key hits and playing terrific defense, and players similar to Kozma are vital to teams’ success in the postseason.

He could also have his name immortalized on the back of championship T-shirts if he helps the Cardinals pull off a fantastic ending to another baseball season.

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