Matt Koperniak signed as an undrafted free agent by the Cardinals after playing Division III baseball at Trinity College in Connecticut. He made it to Double-A Springfield just one year later. (Photo: P.J. Maigi, Springfield Cardinals)

There’s an old adage in professional sports that if you’re good enough — no matter where you play — opportunity will find you. Springfield Cardinals outfielder Matt Koperniak is a perfect example.

Koperniak played college baseball at Division III Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, near his hometown of Adams, Massachusetts. College recruiters didn’t beat down his door after high school, but the Cardinals came calling three years later.

“There’s some players in D-III,” Koperniak said Tuesday before the Cardinals opened a homestand against the Corpus Christi Hooks. “Some guys just develop later. There definitely are some players, some guys that hit well and show power.”

Koperniak showed power in the seventh inning of the series opener, lining a home run to right field in the Cardinals’ 3-0 victory. It was his sixth home run of the season and helped support Gordon Graceffo’s seven shutout innings as he and two relief pitchers combined on a four-hitter.

From undrafted free agent to Double-A

The 23-year-old Koperniak signed as an undrafted free agent two years ago, just after COVID-19 shut down the minor leagues. He had indicated he was going to test his skills in Division I, as a graduate transfer at Kansas State, but opted instead to sign with the Cardinals.

Koperniak hit .394 in 2019 for Trinity, his final full collegiate season as 2020 was mostly lost due to the pandemic.

Going to Kansas State for the 2021 season and testing his skills in the powerful Big 12 Conference was tempting — but not as alluring as taking the Cardinals’ offer and getting his shot at pro ball right then.

“I talked to my agent and figured my best opportunity was to take the signing right then,” Koperniak said.

The draft was only five rounds in that unique year, instead of the usual 20. Whether he would have been drafted in a normal year will never be known and he doesn’t worry a lot about it.

But it was an admittedly strange time, with no organized baseball to play that summer. Koperniak instead worked out on his own and hit in a batting cage off a machine and looked for facilities to weight train.

“It was kind of tough with everything on lockdown,” Koperniak said. “I had to sort of improvise, just like everyone else.”

But he was ready to roll when 2021 rolled around. After a solid spring training, the left-handed hitter began his professional career at Low-A Palm Beach where he hit .322 with four home runs in 58 games. He was promoted to High-A Peoria, but only played four games there before COVID-19 cases in Springfield sent him to Hammons Field.

Koperniak hit .271 with 33 games while finishing the season in Springfield. Overall, he wound up at .306 with seven home runs, 41 RBIs and a solid .850 OPS (on-base plus slugging).

The results were impressive enough that The Cardinal Nation ranked Koperniak as the organization’s No. 35 prospect in December. 

This season has been more of a struggle at the plate as a lineup regular. Entering Tuesday’s game, Koperniak was hitting .246 with five home runs and 23 RBIs in 179 at-bats. But including Tuesday’s 1-for-3, he’s 3-for-9 with a double and home run in his last three games.

Surviving the ups and downs

Springfield manager Jose Leger described Koperniak’s Double-A results as having “ups and downs.”

“Coming through three different levels, it is something tough for a player to do and perform in all of them,” Leger said. “He came up to Double-A and struggled defensively early, but the bat was there. He was getting his knocks and ended up putting up some pretty decent numbers for his first time at Double-A without playing much in lower levels.

“This year, he’s cleaned up the defense and been a lot better. The hitting, he’s hanging in there and trying to find his rhythm. The thing is, you’re playing at a level where the opposition does its homework. They’re seeing video and looking at data and pitching to you accordingly.

​​“He’s right there in that range trying to turn it around and I’m sure he will. He has the ability to make contact. He had a good practice today and hopefully he gets a couple of knocks soon and that gets him back into rhythm.”

Which he did later that evening, hitting the home run with a low, line-drive screamer down the right-field line.

“I’ve just been trying to help out the team as much as possible,” Koperniak said. “The swing hasn’t been that great, but I’m just trying to get better every day and trust the process.”

Being a couple of steps away from the big leagues — albeit big steps — already is a pretty good accomplishment for a former D-III player. But seeing Springfield Cardinals from last season contributing in St. Louis makes Koperniak realize the dream is not far-fetched.

“You look at (Brendan Donovan), (Juan) Yepez, (Nolan) Gorman, (Andre) Pallante and it’s great to see,” Koperniak said. “A lot of those guys were in Springfield last year. It’s crazy how fast it moves for some of those guys. 

“It provides hope and it provides motivation for all of us here.”

Cardinals open homestand with 3-0 victory

The Springfield Cardinals began a six-game homestand at Hammons Field against the Corpus Christi Hooks, Double-A affiliate of the Houston Astros, on Tuesday night with a 3-0 victory. Moises Gomez, Malcom Nunez and Matt Koperniak hit home runs and rising pitching prospect Gordon Graceffo threw seven shutout innings allowing three hits, no walks and he struck out six.

A look at the upcoming games:

Wednesday – 6:35 p.m. Purina Woof Wednesday

Thursday – 7:05 p.m. – Thirsty Thursday, Baseball Bingo, Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright Mystery Ring giveaway (first 2,000 fans)

Friday – 7:05 p.m. – Marvel Defenders of the Diamond, post-game fireworks

Saturday – 6:35 p.m. – Mike Shannon Bobblehead giveaway (first 2,000 fans)

Sunday – 1:35 p.m. – Hiland Dairy Ice Cream Sunday, Kids Run the Bases

Tickets: Call 417-863-0395 or visit the Cardinals box office at Hammons Field