ST. LOUIS -- The Cardinals' come-from-behind victory over the Nationals in Game 5 of last year's National League Division Series was sparked by two unlikely sources.
Daniel Descalso tallied three hits, including a solo homer, and rookie Pete Kozma hit the go-ahead RBI single in the top of the ninth as St. Louis downed Washington, 9-7, to advance to the NL Championship Series.
In Wednesday's Game 5 against the Pirates, Kozma received the starting nod at shortstop over Descalso. Manager Mike Matheny said he's riding the hot hand, and for a team that recorded just 14 hits over its last three games, Kozma's three knocks and one walk during this series are appealing.
"I feel pretty good," Kozma said. "I feel like I'm shrinking the strike zone a little bit, putting the ball in play."
"[We're] watching Pete walk into the batter's box with a lot of confidence right now," Matheny said. "Defensively, there's never been a question what Pete can do and how well of a job he's done for us at shortstop. So with that in mind, we just want to continue to try to keep that positive momentum that he has offensively and put him in this lineup to help make an impact somewhere."
Despite struggling for much of the summer, Kozma managed a modest turnaround in September -- he batted .243 (9-for-37) compared to his .063 average in August -- though his role continued to shrink. The timeshare at shortstop shifted heavily in Descalso's favor, as he started 18 games last month to Kozma's nine.
Matheny has often employed Kozma's right-handed bat against lefty pitchers, but he had the 25-year-old shortstop batting eighth Wednesday for a third start in a row, facing Pittsburgh righty Gerrit Cole.
"Cole's a good pitcher against lefties and righties," Kozma said. "[Cardinals Game 5 starter Adam] Wainwright gets a lot of ground balls. Maybe [Matheny is] thinking about that. I don't know what he's thinking, all I know is I'm in there today."
If the Cardinals are lucky, Kozma can recreate his first Game 5 performance to help St. Louis fend off elimination once again.
"Same situation -- do or die. We'll see what happens today," Kozma said with a smile.
Matheny has nine relievers at disposal for Game 5
ST. LOUIS -- Though the Cardinals planned to watch Adam Wainwright pitch late into Wednesday night, they had a nine-man bullpen ready to assist if necessary.
Lance Lynn, who started Game 2 of the National League Division Series, was fresh and available out of the 'pen for Game 5. The only two pitchers that manager Mike Matheny planned to stay away from were Joe Kelly and Michael Wacha, both of whom started games in Pittsburgh.
"We've got a game plan going in, and you're going to have to probably be able to move a lot quicker if things don't look like they're following the plan," Matheny said, speaking to the urgency of managing an elimination game. "We have almost an all-hands-on-deck [situation]. We do have some young pitchers that we're concerned about not throwing them out there too soon and into situations that they haven't been put into before. We just have to be careful with them."
Both Lynn and Shelby Miller were available to eat up multiple innings in long relief. The other seven relievers were all fresh after having the day off on Tuesday.
Cards' Strom takes job as Astros' pitching coach
ST. LOUIS -- Brent Strom, whose coaching techniques were described by general manager John Mozeliak as "creative and innovative," has left his post as the Cardinals' Minor League pitching coordinator to become the Astros' next Major League pitching coach.
"I had some wonderful years with the Cardinals that I'll cherish forever," Strom told MLB.com, a few days after officially accepting the position. "They're great people to work for, work with. This is a new challenge for me, and the big thing is [Astros general manager] Jeff Luhnow brought me aboard with the Cardinals and really allowed me to work over there and do some things he thought would be beneficial. Hopefully we can do some of that here with the guys that they have in place here, who are excellent."
Strom spent the last seven years working with young pitchers as a roving instructor in the Cardinals' Minor League system. He focused heavily on the mechanics of pitching and incorporated much video in his instruction.
"He did a tremendous job," Mozeliak said. "I think the structure and what he implemented in our Minor League system is something that, even though he's gone, we intend to carry on."
Mozeliak said it was too early to comment on the likelihood of the position being filled by an internal candidate.
• Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said that left-hander Francisco Liriano would be available out of his bullpen for Game 5 if Cole had to come out of the game early. Hurdle added that he will not pitch A.J. Burnett on Wednesday in order to keep Burnett ready to start Game 1 of the NLCS on Friday, if Pittsburgh advances.
• Matheny said that aside from the normal pregame pitchers' and hitters' meetings, there would be no special motivational gathering prior to Wednesday's elimination game.
"I'd be big on it if I thought it was necessary," Matheny said. "I'm not big on team meetings just to have meetings [unless] something is missing, something is lacking, especially the things that we can control, like our concentration or the effort. And, obviously, from our last game, those aren't issues. So when the guys are going about it the right way, when they're preparing and they're absolutely fighting, you want them to just keep going that way."
• In the 32 innings since scoring a record seven runs in the third inning of Game 1, the Cardinals have scored just eight times. The offense entered Wednesday having hit .192 with a .284 on-base percentage in the best-of-five series. Pittsburgh had a .189 team average.
• Left-hander Jaime Garcia (shoulder surgery) continues to progress in his throwing program and is on track to follow a normal offseason program.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. Chad Thornburg is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.