ST. LOUIS — Can shortstop Pete Kozma really be this good?
Pressed into service with Rafael Furcal sidelined for the season, Kozma posted his second consecutive three-hit game Sunday afternoon in the St. Louis Cardinals' 10-4 victory over Washington. He has six straight hits from the No. 8 spot in the order.
Kozma, 24, acknowledged a confidence boost.
"Definitely. I think anybody would feel confident if they keep on getting hits," Kozma said after he had a two-run double in the second, a sacrifice fly in the third and singles in the fifth and seventh.
"I'm seeing the same pitches," he said. "Maybe the ball's just falling a little bit more. I really don't know. The ball's falling right now and I'm going to take it."
All this is occurring after Kozma batted .232 with a .292 on-base percentage in 131 games at Class AAA Memphis. With the Cardinals, the career .258 minor-league hitter is 22-for-65 (.338) with 12 RBIs in 23 games.
Kozma has RBIs in seven of his last eight games, and 10 of his hits have been for extra bases (five doubles, three triples, two homers).
How does Kozma explain the phenomenon?
"I really can't," he said. "I haven't changed anything. Maybe I'm lucky here. ... I've had a hot streak before. I guess people haven't seen it because I was in the minor leagues."
Lance Berkman, noticing a crowd of reporters around Kozma, referred to the rookie as a "rock star."
Cardinals fans have witnessed this act before. In June 2003, Bo Hart batted .379 in his first 23 games (39-for-103). Hart wound up batting .277 in 77 games and was out of baseball after the 2004 season.
Hart, however, was a 33rd-round draft selection, so it's not likely the same fate awaits Kozma, a first-round pick in 2007.
"This, to me, is who he is," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny. "Are we going to look for him to continue to hit .3-whatever? Right now, we just want to watch him do the exact same thing.
"He knows we need him out there to make the plays, and he's doing a terrific job of that. And he's been coming up in big situations. ... That (necessary) spark we've talked about, a lot of times, it does come from a young guy. We needed somebody to step up. Who would have thought it was going to be Pete Kozma?"
The Cardinals gave Daniel Descalso and rookie Ryan Jackson the first opportunity to replace Furcal. Their third choice now is No. 1.
"The situation we were put in when 'Rafi' went down, we were really just waiting to see who was going to jump up and grab it," Matheny said. "That's exactly what he's done. That's how careers are started --big-league careers. He's been on that prospect list and has all the tools, but he's taking advantage of it on a big stage here."
Furcal is signed for 2013 and the Cardinals are making no commitment to Kozma. Clearly, though, his stock has climbed.
"I certainly hope so," Kozma said. "It's not up to me. I've just got to go out there and play and do what I can. It's up to the manager."
Kozma said he always has maintained the confidence that he could be a major-leaguer, despite occasional down times.
"The confidence has always been there," he said. "Everybody gets frustrated. It's baseball. It's a game of failure. You have to step back and say, 'All right. I just need to calm down.'"
Defense is Kozma's calling card, despite his hot bat.
He dived to his right Saturday and short-hopped a smash by the Nationals' Chad Tracy, then made a strong throw to first for the out.
"He's always been a very solid glove," Matheny said. "That's really why we started giving him a good opportunity. He's got good range, he's got a good arm, good instincts. He looks very natural.
"Offensively, we didn't see the consistency that we're seeing right now. Some guys, it comes at different times. Right now, he's on a good roll. We just want to keep him there."
The offensive prowess has at least made Kozma feel like he belongs with the big-leaguers. That wasn't the case last season when he played in 16 games with the Cardinals and was 3-for-17.
"It's a lot different," Kozma said. "I wasn't getting to play as much, and that was completely understandable because there were a lot of veterans on the team and everyone was healthy. I was playing (only) once a week, defensively, not really getting that many plate appearances. This has definitely helped."
Matheny is tempted in no way to elevate Kozma in the order. After all, Jon Jay is solid at the top and Carlos Beltran had two home runs and five RBIs from the No. 2 spot on Sunday.
"Don't mess with it," Matheny said. "If it's working where it is, especially for a young player ... It's not easy hitting up in the lineup, the psychology of it. He's doing a great job where he is. That's what we want.
"We want him to go out there and catch the ball, and whatever he offers offensively from that eight hole is a bonus."
Contact reporter David Wilhelm at email@example.com or 239-2665.