ST. LOUIS Baseball's higher forces have a wicked sense of humor. How else to explain shortstop Pete Kozma, the St. Louis Cardinals' King Clutch this October, becoming the victim of a funhouse sequence in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series?
Let's rewind to Monday night: In the bottom of the third inning, the San Francisco Giants led 2-0. Bases were loaded after Marco Scutaro singled to right field, Pablo Sandoval doubled to left and Buster Posey walked. Then Hunter Pence's bat split after a lightning strike of a 95-mph fastball from Joe Kelly cracked it, causing the shattered wood to knock the ball not once, not twice, but three times before skirting past a confused Kozma.
Three runs scored.
Takes two and three: Different batters that inning but the same slip on a bar of soap. Kozma snagged a grounder from Brandon Crawford but was late zinging the ball to Yadier Molina, allowing Pence to trot home. Score: 6-0.
Later, Kozma cupped a grounder from Angel Pagan but floated the feed to Daniel Descalso, preventing a double play. Score: 7-0.
Face, meet palm. Kozma stumbled, but the Cardinals were happy to peel him from the mat Tuesday.
First baseman Allen Craig: "He handled it fine. He's a tough guy. You guys can criticize all you want, but he was great for us down the stretch. All of us will say that we wouldn't be here without him."
Descalso, a second baseman: "That's a difficult spot to be thrust into, coming up in September and you're the starting shortstop. But Pete handled it great. He made all the plays down the stretch for us. He came up with some big hits. That's all you can really ask for."
Centerfielder Jon Jay: "He came in and stepped up. That's big. We really needed that at the time. Furcal went down. Everyone knows how great he was and how much he means to our ballclub, but Koz came in and stepped up and did big things for us."
Baseball karma can be a two-faced monster: It either creates buzz for a player or kills it. After Monday, Kozma can say he's even with the universe.
He was called up from Class AAA Memphis on Aug. 31, after Rafael Furcal was placed on the disabled list because of a strained right elbow. What followed was nothing short of fireworks in a jar: He hit .333 with 14 RBI and an on-base percentage of .383 in the regular season.
In the postseason, he became the Cardinals' Forrest Gump. He found himself mixed with the curious infield fly (wandering in left field with Matt Holliday vs. the Atlanta Braves in the NL wild-card game) and with the cardiac Game 5 comeback (he smacked a two-run RBI single vs. the Washington Nationals in the ninth inning of the NL Division Series to give St. Louis the lead).
He became Pete Kozma, the pinch-yourself reserve who helped the Cardinals stiff-arm the Los Angeles Dodgers and Milwaukee Brewers for the second wild card. He became Pete Kozma, a non-descript wanderer in the St. Louis clubhouse no more who made "Kozmania" part of his franchise's postseason lexicon. He became Pete Kozma, a sub-turned-star who helped lift the Cardinals to their ninth playoffs appearance in the last 13 years.
"Just to say a comment on Pete Kozma," said St. Louis manager Mike Matheny, when asked about the third-inning collapse Monday, "I don't believe that we're here right now, and I don't know if we would have got out of September, early October, if we hadn't had Pete Kozma step up like he did. He's been a tremendous shortstop for us."
Matheny's right. Not long ago, Kozma served the part of adhesive tape, patching holes in the lineup because of injuries to superior players but expected to be invisible. He appeared in 16 games in 2011, batting .176 with one RBI and an on-base percentage of .333.
Kozma has come far. Remember last year, when he was known for little more than throwing the ball from second base that caused Albert Pujols' fractured left wrist?
"Without Pete, we don't go as far as we did," Descalso said. "Once he got comfortable, he really settled in. That's the Pete Kozma that I played with in the minor leagues."
Kozma helped kick-start his career in the process. After the game Monday, St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak said the former 18th-overall pick from the 2007 MLB amateur draft had put himself back on the map with the Cardinals.
That's fitting. After all, Kozma helped put St. Louis back in postseason contention.
Game 7 of the NLCS was a grounding moment, but to that point, Kozma had soared beyond expectations.
That's enough to remember what went right in September and October. That's enough to remember his rise before its end.
You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at email@example.com.