ATLANTA -- Though the Cardinals certainly missed Rafael Furcal's on-field presence over the past month, Pete Kozma's emergence as a capable Major League shortstop became one of the feel-good stories of the Cards' September.
Now Kozma has the chance to carry that surge into the brightest of baseball's spotlights. Kozma, who, in late August, was unsure if he would even be considered for a September callup, starts at short for the Cardinals in Friday's Wild Card game.
"You always wonder how a kid's going to perform when you put him on a big stage," manager Mike Matheny said. "And we put him on as big a stage as there was in the game [in September], and he rose to the challenge. I don't know, to be honest with you, what we would have done [without him]. We would have kept musical chairing it for a while with a couple of other players until we found somebody to take control. But, fortunately, Pete Kozma stepped up, took charge of the position."
In finding a replacement for Furcal, the Cardinals prioritized defensive stability. Kozma provided that, but surprisingly also much more. Kozma's .343 batting average over the final month of the season was the best by a St. Louis rookie since 1984, when Terry Pendleton hit .343.
Kozma started the final 16 games of the regular season, making it little surprise that Matheny stuck with him on Friday. Ten of Kozma's 22 hits were for extra bases, and he delivered an RBI in seven of the team's last 11 games.
This production followed a Minor League season in which Kozma batted just .232 in 131 games.
"I think the big thing for him has been confidence," general manager John Mozeliak said. "That's been something he's had to battle a little bit. When you look at his career path in the Minor Leagues, getting off to a quick start was never something he did. To be able to come in here and step in right away with success has really helped his confidence."
Matheny willing to use late-inning relievers earlier
ATLANTA -- Manager Mike Matheny's use of his top three relievers has been deliberate and consistent since Edward Mujica stepped in as the team's seventh-inning setup man at the non-waiver Trade Deadline. The sequence of Mujica, Mitchell Boggs and Jason Motte to preserve a narrow lead over the final three innings is a pattern that Matheny has hardly needed to deviate from.
Friday's win-or-go-home Wild Card game could test that.
For the Cardinals, the best-case scenario would be that starter Kyle Lohse covers at least the first six innings. Matheny could then stick to the script to close out the game.
If the game doesn't progress as such, however, Matheny could have game-altering decisions to make with his bullpen in the middle innings. As hesitant as he's been to change a late-inning formula that has worked, Friday could be the situation in which he does call on one of those three earlier than usual or for more than one inning, if a game situation dictates such.
"You don't take anything off the table in a situation like this," Matheny said on Friday. "The best shot is the best guy at that particular time with all the variables in place, and we've thought about it. We've gone through and put some potential situations out there, and we feel we're pretty covered.
"But we do like what the back end of our 'pen has done. You can't ignore the success they've had as we've kept them consistently in those roles. So it will be a balance there, as well. But once again, it's a different animal we're dealing with today."
Adding starters Lance Lynn and Joe Kelly onto the roster for this game does fortify the bullpen and could allow for Matheny to avoid pulling the trigger on using either of his two setup men earlier than desired.
Cards using May series vs. Braves as motivator
ATLANTA -- Perhaps perceived as underdogs in Friday's Wild Card game largely because of the success Atlanta had against them this season, the Cardinals remain insistent that the St. Louis team the Braves faced back in May hardly resembles the one the Cards bring for this one-game matchup.
And they would seem to have a valid point.
The Braves won five of the six head-to-head games between these two clubs, all of those games being played during a three-week stretch in May. Atlanta's sweep over St. Louis at Busch Stadium from May 11-13 came after the Cardinals positioned themselves atop the National League Central with a 20-11 record to open the season.
About that time, though, much began to go wrong.
Key players like Lance Berkman, Allen Craig, Kyle McClellan, Matt Carpenter and Jon Jay all landed on the disabled list that month. Jaime Garcia was pitching hurt, and the rest of the Cardinals' starting staff had hit a collective lull.
As general manager John Mozeliak noted on Friday: "All of a sudden we started to have leakage in places that maybe we weren't anticipating. We were still scoring runs, but we weren't preventing runs. It was dark times."
The Cardinals' record regressed all the way to .500 by June 21. From that point on, though, improved health and stability within the rotation helped the Cards go 53-39 the rest of the way. The Braves never saw them during that stretch.
"The first time we matched up with them, we were struggling a little bit and they were red hot, taking some very good at-bats," manager Mike Matheny said. "I think we saw them at one of the better stretches that they had. So that's something we stick in our mind and a motivator that we've got to be sharp."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.