Cardinals hitting coach Mark McGwire knows it when he sees it, having played the latter part of his career as an elite hitter with a back that rebelled against his swings.
He also knows there's no way Matt Holliday will surrender to it.
"I'm sure he'd say his back is fine," McGwire said after Monday's game. "But it's not 100 percent. It's not. But he's out there. That's key. He's out there busting his rear end, making it still happen and that's what it takes."
Holliday, hounded for several weeks by back trouble and for several months by a sore hip, contributed two singles and a walk to the Cardinals' 4-2 victory against Cincinnati at Busch Stadium. The multi-hit game was his fourth since Sept. 3, and it continued a steady climb out from the deepest funk of his season. In the previous 23 games, Holliday had hit .198 (16 for 81) with 26 strikeouts. He has deflected questions about whether his swing is complicated or diminished by the sore back.
As McGwire predicted, he did so again Monday.
"I have no excuses," Holliday said as the team watched the Dodgers-Giants game to see if the Cardinals clinched the National League's second wild-card berth with an LA loss. "I just haven't had a swing as good as I'd like it to be. I've felt better the last couple days. I felt like I was getting closer."
Said McGwire: "He's just battling through it."
Holliday made his 153rd start of the season, and he's started 151 of the Cardinals' 160 games in let field. He has also hit third in every game he's started. The only other player with as many as four starts at the prime position in the Cardinals' lineup is Carlos Beltran. In recent weeks, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny has talked often about seeing Beltran "turn the corner" and how essential to the offense it is for the switch-hitter to find his swing. Just as obvious has been the lineup's need to get a jolt from Holliday, who was removed from a couple of games on the past road trip because his back became too stiff or too sore to run.
Beltran had his breakthrough Sunday with two home runs and five RBIs. Back in the No. 2 spot ahead of Holliday, he joined with the Cardinals' No. 3 hitter to reach base six times Monday. They scored two of the Cardinals' runs, and the batters directly behind them — surging cleanup hitter Allen Craig and MVP-candidate catcher Yadier Molina — drove in two of the four runs.
Monday was the second time in a month Holliday had reached base three times.
"It's just getting that feel, getting that confidence," Matheny said. "Carlos' timing looks right. We get both of those guys clicking it could be a lot of fun."
McGwire described how Holliday has "been grinding it all year" just to be in the lineup for the Cardinals. Matheny has several times encouraged Holliday to take a break, step out of the lineup to heal, and according to McGwire the left fielder has resisted. In his career he has habitually closed strong, most notably in 2007 when he hit .365 and slugged .788 as Colorado made its late charge for the postseason. Holliday finished second in the MVP voting that season and hitched his totals to a strong September split.
In his career, Holliday has hit .310 with a .550 slugging percentage in the final month of the season. Last year and this year those totals have dropped as he dealt with assorted aches. A year ago, he was trying to swing the bat through a hand injury.
This season, he hit .252 in August and dropped to .226 in the past month.
"It wasn't nearly as consistent as I want it to be," Holliday said. "It's frustrating. I usually finish strong. (But) I'm seeing the ball better. I'm not chasing pitches. I feel right now, results or no results, my swing is a lot flatter and more effective."
That was tested Monday against Reds offspeed specialist Bronson Arroyo. As Holliday said later, the Reds righty has the change-of-pace that can expose a hitter that can't find his own rhythm. A pitcher like that would have left Holliday fishing before. Instead, Holliday reached Arroyo for two hits, once gaining the extension that is difficult with a compromised back.
McGwire knows that feeling.
"Grinding. Working," McGwire said. "His back is not as good as he wants it to be but he's battling through it, and that's a testament to him. He's our workhorse. He's going to the post everyday. You find a way. I had to find a way. And each year when something like this flares up you know you've been through it before and you can still find a way even when it's hurting."
Not that Holliday would acknowledge it.
"You play 150 games, you're going to be a little banged up," Holliday said. "I'm good enough to do what I have to. I'm good enough to keep it going."