Pete Kozma's defensive heroics off the bench key Cardinals win

By Jorge L. Ortiz, USA TODAY Sports for KSDK Sports

(KSDK Sports) --In the news media's position-by-position breakdowns looking ahead to the National League Championship Series, the Los Angeles Dodgers held a huge advantage at shortstop.

Not only had Hanley Ramirez re-established his credentials as a three-time All-Star with a standout season, but he was coming off a huge Division Series in which he batted .500.

The St. Louis Cardinals countered with .217-hitting Pete Kozma, who was their starter only because Rafael Furcal had to sit out the season following Tommy John elbow surgery.

GAME 4: Cardinals push Dodgers to the brink

Of course, those analyses were done before Ramirez took a Game 1 fastball to the ribs, resulting in a hairline fracture that has severely limited him for the rest of the series and might keep him out of Game 5.

They were also written before Kozma's crucial fielding plays in the Cardinals' 4-2 victory Tuesday, which gave them a 3-1 lead in the NLCS.

Kozma, who played just four innings after coming in as a defensive replacement in the sixth, was a major factor in St. Louis keeping the Dodgers off the board after they trimmed a 3-0 deficit to one run in the fourth.

With one out and a runner on first in the sixth, Kozma backhanded Juan Uribe's hot grounder in the hole and fed second baseman Matt Carpenter for an inning-ending double play that stunted the Dodgers' attempt to tie the 3-2 game.

"I joked with him right before that during a mound visit, 'Hey, this ball's coming to you,''' said Daniel Descalso, who had started at shortstop to give St. Louis more offensive punch but moved to third to open the sixth.

"When you come into a game defensively, the ball seems to find you. He said, 'I'll be ready,' and he was. That was a great double play.''

Even more memorable was a play the next inning that quelled another L.A. threat. Nick Punto drilled a one-out double as the Dodgers sought to cut into a Cardinals' lead that had grown to 4-2 on pinch-hitter Shane Robinson's stunning solo homer in the top half.

With leadoff hitter Carl Crawford at the plate, Kozma spotted Punto too far off second and snuck in behind him, and rookie reliever Carlos Martinez whirled and put the ball on the money for a rally-killing pickoff.

"That was unbelievable," manager Mike Matheny said. "That's instigated by Kozma, so great heads-up play by him. Then it has to be natural instincts and athleticism by Carlos Martinez, and I don't know many guys that pull that off."

Kozma, who is 0-for-9 at the plate in the series, made yet another impressive contribution when he gracefully handled a tough hop on pinch-hitter Michael Young's smash right at him.

That helped Martinez put up a zero in the eighth as Cardinals relievers extended their streak of scoreless innings in the NLCS to 14.

Kozma, the 18th overall pick in the 2007 draft, failed to stick as a starter before this year because his bat lagged considerably behind his fielding skills.

He has polished those by working with third-base coach Jose Oquendo, a former Cardinals shortstop, and got some tips when he, Descalso and Carpenter went to dinner during spring training with Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith.

The sure-handed Kozma would not reveal the tricks he learned from the Wizard of Oz, nor is he about to attempt one of Smith's famous backward flips, but he clearly has a perspective on what he brings to the team's cause.

"There are two sides to the game. You can win on either side," said Kozma, 25. "We won on the defensive side today, not just me, but everybody. The pitching was fantastic today."

DODGERS: Backs against the wall

On the opposite side, the offensive-minded Ramirez could hardly swing a bat without wincing in pain.

With the Dodgers desperate to instill some life into their moribund attack, which has produced a total of seven runs in the series, they started Ramirez the last two nights, and he did deliver two singles and an RBI in Monday's 3-0 win.

But the pain has been getting worse, and Ramirez struck out all three times up before leaving after six innings Tuesday. He was due to get treatment in hopes of being available for Wednesday's game at 1 p.m. PT.

"I couldn't handle the pain any longer. And they told me that by leaving the game early, I would be able to play tomorrow," Ramirez said.

"I've been trying my best to be in the lineup and help the team win. And I'm going to keep doing it. Tomorrow I'm going to come back and expect to see my name in the lineup and say that I can go, but it's going to be hard."


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