Craig gives Cards a solid middle man

2012-10-30T13:05:00Z 2012-11-06T14:17:30Z Craig gives Cards a solid middle manBY RICK HUMMEL • > 314-340-8196

In a year's time, with a broken kneecap and subsequent surgery factored in, Allen Craig morphed from platoon-type player to cleanup hitter for the defending World Series champions.

The Cardinals no longer are defending that title, having bowed out last week when the San Francisco Giants shut down Craig and most of the rest of the Cardinals over the last three games of the National League championship series. But there can be no argument that, were it not for Craig and his production from the cleanup spot in his first full year as a regular player, the Cardinals wouldn't have been playing any deeper into October than their Oct. 3 regular-season finale.

Craig was held to a .125 average on three-for-24 hitting in the championship series, enduring four line drives that were caught for outs. But, in 261 at-bats as the Cardinals' cleanup man in the regular season — a job that veteran Lance Berkman was supposed to have had but couldn't perform because of his bad knees — the 28-year-old University of California product was equal to the challenge, hitting .303 with 12 homers and 52 of his 92 runs batted in.

As a comparison, when Matt Holliday, who was ahead of Craig mostly this year, was hitting behind Albert Pujols the previous two seasons, Holliday batted .300 with 18 homers and 64 RBIs in 370 at-bats as the cleanup man in 2011 and .308 in 533 at-bats with 23 homers and 90 RBIs in 2010.

That latter year is quite similar to what Craig did in roughly half as many at-bats this season. If his at-bats were doubled, Craig would have had 24 homers and 104 RBIs out of the cleanup spot.

Only San Francisco's Buster Posey, who batted fourth in all 142 games he started this season, hit for a higher average out of the cleanup spot (minimum 250 at-bats) than Craig. Cincinnati's Brandon Phillips averaged the same .303 when he hit fourth.

"I don't like to sell myself short," said Craig. "I've always thought of myself as a guy who could hit in the middle of the order.

"With that said, we have a lot of guys who can hit in different spots in the lineup, whether I'm hitting second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, whatever, it doesn't really matter.

"But I'm definitely excited about the opportunity to hit fourth on this team. That's what I want to do. I like being in that spot," said Craig, who actually hit higher — .347 — when batting second.

Manager Mike Matheny said what struck him the most was that "there's not just one particular way you can pitch this guy. He's a big-league hitter and the numbers are what they are. What he's done is very impressive."

While Craig was starring in last year's World Series, hitting three home runs and catching the final out in left field, besides taking a home run away with a leaping grab earlier in Game 7, he was doing it on a troubled knee, which had to be addressed with offseason surgery.

There were times after he came back this season that Craig was compromised but, by the end of the season, he was as good as he was going to be. But not as good as next year, he said.

"I feel good physically and I'll have a strong offseason," said Craig.

"(The knee) feels great. It took a little bit to get my legs under me. It wasn't necessarily my knee that was hurting. It was getting my leg muscles in shape.

"I didn't really have a spring training or too long a rehab stint to get going. I had to do all that at the beginning of the year."

Craig has indicated a preference for playing outfield, and both Matheny and general manager John Mozeliak acknowledge that. But Mozeliak said, "Right now, we need him at first."

Carlos Beltran will be back for another year as the right fielder, with Jon Jay in center and Holliday in left. Not far away is prized outfield prospect Oscar Tavares, so Craig realizes that first base will be his position for the foreseeable future. "I feel pretty good over there," he said. "I don't really care where I play. I'm going work hard to get better defensively, wherever I am.

"You're going to get better with experience. I've been better at communicating with Cheo (infield coach Jose Oquendo) on positioning myself on certain hitters or where to be in certain spots throughout the game."

Wherever he takes his glove, though, Craig's best position is in the batter's box.

"He's just going to get better and better," said hitting coach Mark McGwire. "This is his first full season and he missed six weeks, or eight weeks?

"Last year he was a part-time player, was on a roll and got hurt. Broke his kneecap. Then he was out two months.

"Is he going to get better? Absolutely, he's going to get better."

McGwire did his share of batting fourth in his career and knows the variables. But McGwire said,"The type of hitter he is, it's not going to be that daunting. He's a pure run producer."

If he had had another month as a regular, Craig, who finished in sixth in the league in batting average at .307 (just ahead of the dreaded Marco Scutaro), well could have had 115 or 120 runs batted in. In four consecutive minor-league seasons, which end a month ahead of the big-league season, Craig had at least 80 RBIs.

"That's what he's done in college. That's what he did in the minor leagues. He's continued to do it here in the big leagues," said McGwire.

"People across the country found out who he was last year in the World Series. They'll really know AC in the future.

"He's really good. He's just really good. That's all I can say."

Mozeliak said, "He had a tremendous year two ways. Number one, his ability to get back healthy and to show he can be an everyday player, given the injuries he had to deal with. And to handle the responsibility of hitting in the 4 hole. ... you look at the numbers he put up after the time he missed, it was pretty spectacular.

"His experience and realization of what type of player he is have come full cycle. I think just having him for six months (next year) will make him better."

Craig is not content to stay where he is.

"You always have to make adjustments," said Craig. "There's always a fine line between doing what you do well and sticking to your approach but also willing to make adjustments, think outside the box and stuff like that."

He said he not only relied on video but the suggestions of hitting coaches McGwire and John Mabry.

"You use all your resources to get better and try to gain an edge," said Craig.

"I've always had a pretty good feel for making in-game adjustments, knowing different types of pitchers and what they're going to try to do with me. But there's also stuff I don't know that Big Mac and Mabes know — and Matt and Carlos know, too, having played through full seasons.

"I have a pretty good idea what I want to do up there but then you add in all these other guys who have put up great numbers over the years ... it's going to make me better by talking to them and seeing what they're going to say.

"It's been really a blessing to have been on this team and in this organization."

The team and the organization have benefited, likewise.

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