Pete Kozma received glowing reviews following a brief audition for a lead role late last season with the St. Louis Cardinals.
After spending six years in the minors, Kozma is the Cardinals' starting shortstop heading into the 2013 season.
“Probably the best baseball we played (last year) was when we had Pete,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said during training camp after team officials announced Rafael Furcal was undergoing surgery and could miss the entire season. “That was very encouraging the way (Kozma) played.”
Kozma, from Owasso, was pressed into an emergency role late last season when Furcal was sidelined by an elbow injury.
Promoted to the majors on Aug. 31, Kozma hit .333 with a .569 slugging percentage in 75 at bats.
During the pressure of a pennant race, too.
Ten of his 24 hits went for extra bases.
Kozma also played a key role in the playoffs. He compiled nine postseason hits, highlighted by a go-ahead, two-run single during the Cardinals' dramatic four-run, ninth-inning rally to beat the Washington Nationals 9-7 in Game 5 of the National League division series.
Owasso coach Larry Turner returned home from a high-school football game just in time to watch Kozma's clutch hit in the winner-advances game, a game the Cardinals trailed 6-0 at one point.
“He lets that fastball go down the middle in the ninth. I was thinking, ‘Whoa,'” Turner said. “Then he gets that hit down the line to drive in two runs and I'm screaming, ‘Yes.' I felt so great for him.”
Six-time All-Star outfielder Matt Holliday, a Stillwater product, said you can't help but root for players like Kozma, who pay their dues.
“No doubt,” Holliday said. “Playing in the minor leagues isn't always easy. It takes perseverance. He showed them he's willing to put in the time to get an opportunity. He came up the year before but didn't get a lot of playing time. To see a player come up and make the most of it, you love to see that.”
Kozma, who turns 25 next week, had only 17 major league at bats before last year's late-season promotion. To play some of his best baseball during his first pennant race made an impression on his teammates.
“Without him, I don't think we make the playoffs in addition to the big (postseason) hits he had,” Holliday said. “He filled a need we had. He came up and played really well. He definitely opened some eyes, definitely caught people's attention.”
A first-round pick, the 18th overall selection in the 2007 draft, Kozma is a career .236 hitter in the minors but developed a more direct, firmer swing late last season. He was hitting .232 at Triple-A Memphis when he was promoted to the Cardinals following Furcal's injury.
“I joked with him: ‘I guess Triple-A pitching is better than the big leagues,'” Turner said. “He proved he can do it. Obviously it had to give him some confidence. He can play defense. I think he'll be fine. He just needed an opportunity.”
Kozma still lives in Owasso during the offseason. This past winter. He worked with a personal trainer in addition to numerous workouts with other Tulsa-area pro players at Oral Roberts University.
He solidified his grasp on the starting job by hitting .340 this spring. He'll get an extended look. But if Kozma struggles it's a position the Cardinals might look to upgrade near the July 31 trading deadline.
“Last season is in the past,” Kozma said. “It's something I can definitely look back at and say, ‘Hey, I did that.' But it's in the past. I have to look forward.”
The Cardinals showed confidence in Kozma when they released veteran Ronny Cedeno late in training camp. St. Louis had brought in Cedeno to compete with Kozma after Furcal was informed he would need surgery.
“We have a very strong offense,” Matheny said. “It may not be a 25- or 30-home run guy at that spot. It's doing the little things right and making plays.”
Solid defensive play, showing perseverance, are attributes Kozma displayed during 671 minor league games. He compiled nearly 2,500 minor league at bats to methodically work his way through the Cardinals system.
“Pete was on the verge,” Turner said. “He had gotten to the point he either had to produce or they probably were going to release him. It was unfortunate for Furcal to get hurt, but that's how breaks are made sometimes. Pete had a great run there at the end. Now he's looking to build on that.”