The Little Things: Allen Craig

In a season full of big wins, huge disappointments, unbelievable comebacks and a thrilling World Series Championship, sometimes it is important to take a step back and take a look at a few of the little things that made all of that possible.  This time, we will take a look at Allen “The Wrench” Craig.

Coming into the 2011 season, the young outfielder carried the AAAA label, meaning that he was too good to play in the minors, but perhaps not good enough to play in the big leagues.   If you had seen him play in Springfield or Memphis, you knew this to be utterly ridiculous.  With his accomplishments in 2011, there will be no more talk of AAAA, but rather how can new manager Mike Matheny find a place for Craig to play.   Our friend, William Tasker, wrote an excellent article making exactly this point – Cards Need to Find Allen Craig an Every Day Home.

There was little doubt that Allen Craig would make the active roster coming out of spring training, but there was a question about his role and how often he would be able to play.   With some questions surrounding Lance Berkman’s health, we thought he would spend a lot of time in right field, but Berkman proved to be far more durable than anybody expected, so playing time was scarce in the early going.

Then tragedy hit the club on April 1 when Matt Holliday went down with an appendectomy.  Even though Holliday only missed a few games, Craig proved to be more than a capable backup.   Tony La Russa started looking for new ways to get Craig’s potent bat into the lineup, including playing him at second base when Jaime Garcia pitched.   La Russa knew that the other team would stuff their lineup with right handed bats, and that Garcia got a lot of ground balls pulled to the left side of the infield.  That kept Craig’s defensive exposure to a minimum, and most of the time it worked.  It also sets up a very interesting possibility for 2012.

Where Craig proved to be a difference maker was when the the Cardinals visited American League parks during the interleague portion of the schedule.   In previous years, La Russa was forced to use a fourth outfielder or backup infielder as a designated hitter – hardly intimidating.   Now he could use Matt Holliday or Lance Berkman in that role and he had an offensive weapon as fierce as any in the AL.  That was not lost on Ron Washington and the Texas Rangers.

Tragedy struck early in a game in Houston, on June 7.  With one out in the first inning, Clint Barmes  slices a foul ball down the right field line.   Allen Craig makes an effort to catch the ball, but comes up just short.   He starts to slide into the wall but his knee hit a solid metal support instead of the more giving portion of the wall.   The result was a broken knee, and Craig would miss the next 54 games.

At the time of his injury, the young slugger was hitting .336 with a nice display of power.   For two months we wondered if we had seen the best of Allen Craig in 2011.   Had we ?  Let’s take a look.

Before 107 36 4 23 .336 .405 .523 .928
After 93 27 7 17 .290 .309 .591 .901

It appears that our concerns were unnecessary.  Craig lost most of his batting average in the first first few weeks after coming off the disabled list, being used mostly as a pinch hitter.  That also explains the big drop in on base percentage – you don’t go up as a pinch hitter just to take a walk.   If you look just a bit farther down the line, you see a big jump in Craig’s power numbers, and those extra base hits came in very handy in the last weeks of the season.

If you extrapolate his .315 batting average, 11 home runs and 40 RBIs to a full season, you get something like 35 home runs and 130 RBIs.   That is why our friend, Mr. Tasker, wants to see Craig in the lineup every day.  And so do the rest of the Cardinals fans.

In late September,  Allen Craig found himself again in the lineup, taking the place of an injured Matt Holliday.  Once again, Craig put on a show.

September 27 – St. Louis at Houston

There were just two games left in the season, and the Cardinals needed to win both.   It didn’t matter what the Atlanta Braves do if the Cardinals didn’t take care of the Astros.   A heartbreaking loss in the the series opener put a little bit more pressure on the Cardinals to win this game – nothing that they hadn’t dealt with since August 3.

Poor Jake Westbrook.  In a must win game, he just didn’t have it.  Westbrook didn’t even make it out of the third inning, giving Houston a quick 5-0 lead.   The Cardinals got back into the game in the top of the fourth when 10 men came to the plate.  By the time the inning was over, the score was all tied up at 5.

In his second inning of work, reliever Marc Rzepczynski got into a serous jam.  A single and pair of walks loaded the bases with nobody out.  A double play prevented a big inning, but Houston scored the go-ahead run.   In any  other year, that would have been the end of the Cardinals – but not 2011.

The score stayed 6-5 in favor of Houston until the seventh inning.   And the rally started with two outs.  Lance Berkman singles, bringing Allen Craig to the plate.   Craig works the count full, and on a 3-2 pitch, Craig hits a line drive that splits the outfielders, easily scoring Berkman from first base.  The game is now tied.   Ryan Theriot follows that with a triple, Nick Punto hits a double and the score runs to 9-6.   An inning later, Craig hits a three run homer, making the score 12-6.  Nick Punto added a solo home run in the ninth for a 13-6 win.

If Allen Craig does not get that two out hit in the seventh inning, this game might have ended much differently.

September 28 – St. Louis at Houston

The final game of the season.  If the Cardinals and Atlanta both win, there will be a one game playoff in St. Louis the next day.   There was never a consideration the Cardinals would lose this one.   Well, not after the first inning.

The first five men reached base safely, and all five scored.   Jon Jay and Allen Craig were the first two, and their hits were more of the seeing eye variety.  Then the hits started coming harder and harder.   Four singles, a double, groundout and two more singles gave the Cardinals a 5-0 lead.   That would turn out to be more than Chris Carpenter needed, but Mr. Craig was not quite through.

In the top of the ninth inning, with the Cardinals leading 7-0, Allen Craig hits a long home run into the right field seats.   That’s right, Craig was playing a little David Freese here and showing some opposite field power.   Although the game had been decided two hours earlier, that home run was the perfect way to end his impressive rookie season, and shed the AAAA label for good.

October 2 – St. Louis at Philadelphia

This was Game Two of the National League Divisional Series.   On short rest, Chris Carpenter struggled and the Phillies, who had won the first game handily, jumped out to a 4-0 lead.   Thanks to a pair of singles from Jon Jay and two doubles from Ryan Theriot, the Cardinals had tied the game off a very tough left-hander, Cliff Lee.   The game and perhaps series turned around in the top of the seventh inning, and it all started with Allen Craig.

Craig had struck out twice and walked in his previous plate appearances against Lee, and looked somewhat overmatched.   After just missing the strike zone on an 0-2 curveball, Craig sends the next pitch deep into the Philadelphia sky, nearly leaving the ballpark.  Even playing no doubles deep defense, Craig managed to hit the ball over centerfielder Shane Victorino’s head.   Victorino gave chase and but couldn’t quite get there and the ball harmlessly bounced off his glove.   To make matters worse for the Phillies, Victorino could not immediately pick up the ball, and that allowed Craig to make it all the way to third base without a throw.   On the next pitch, Albert Pujols hits a line drive over the shortstop’s head,  easily scoring Craig.   It would take four Cardinals relievers to get the final nine outs, but they would make that run hold up, and St. Louis wins Game Two, 5-4.

October 16 – St. Louis at Milwaukee

This is the final game of the 2011 National League Championship Series, and it was a wild one early.   The Cardinals exploded for four first inning runs off Milwaukee starter, Chris Narveson.  They added another the next inning on a solo home run by Rafael Furcal.   Unfortunately, Cardinals starter, Edwin Jackson, could not keep the Brewers from scoring either.  After two innings, it was a one run game with the Cardinals on top, but the Brewers didn’t look worried.

Things changed in the top of the third inning, and again, Allen Craig finds himself at the plate for the pivotal moment.   A leadoff home run by Albert Pujols and sacrifice fly from Nick Punto gave the Cardinals a 7-4 lead, a three run margin that they have already given up once in this game.   With runners on second and third, Allen Craig pinch hits for Edwin Jackson and singles up the middle, driving in two more runs.   That made the lead 9-4 and it would now take more than one swing of the bat from Ryan Braun or Prince Fielder to tie the game.  That two run single effectively ended the season for the Milwaukee Brewers as the Cardinals cruised to a 12-6 win and a date with the Texas Rangers in the World Series.

October 19 – Texas at St. Louis

Game One of the 2011 World Series was everything that we had hoped it would be.  Baseball fans who turned their attention elsewhere because their team was not playing would miss out on a most entertaining series.

The two starters, C. J. Wilson for the Rangers and Chris Carpenter for the Cardinals, were sharp in the early going.   Each team would have their chances, but the veteran hurlers quickly ended any thoughts of a rally.   A Lance Berkman single in the in the bottom of the fourth inning would give the Cardinals a 2-0 lead, but a two run homer by Mike Napoli moments later would tie the game.  Back and forth it went, until the bottom of the sixth inning.

Call me Ishmael, err Alexi

David Freese started things off with a one out double.    He would take third base when CJ Wilson threw the ball to the backstop.   Wilson got Yadier Molina to strike out, but Nick Punto walks, bringing Allen Craig to the plate as a pinch hitter.   It also brought the hard throwing Alexi Ogando into the game.  At first Ogando totally over-matched Craig.   Going to the fastball one too many times, Craig calmly put hit bat on an outside pitch and shot a line drive down the right field line, just inside fair territory.  Nelson Cruz was unable to make the catch, and Freese scores the go ahead run.   A parade of five relievers makes that run hold up and St. Louis wins the first game, 3-2.

October 20 – Texas at St. Louis

It couldn’t happen again, could it ?  Almost.

In Game Two, Jaime Garcia and Colby Lewis were locked in a pitching duel.  Neither pitcher had surrendered a run until the Cardinals half of the seventh inning.  As in the previous game, it started with a David Freese hit – this time just a single.   With two outs, Nick Punto extends the inning with a dribbler that Ian Kinsler could not quite play.   That again brought Allen Craig to the plate and Alexi Ogando out of the bullpen.

In a modern reenactment of Moby Dick, Ogando seemed determined to retire Allen Craig with his fastball.   For the second time is an many nights, Allen Craig made him pay for that mistake with an RBI single.   That would give the Cardinals a 1-0 lead.

Unfortunately, this time the parade of relievers were not able to make the lead hold up, but Craig had gotten seriously into the head of the Rangers reliever.   That would become significant later in the series.

October 22 – St. Louis at Texas

This game will be remembered for the 3 home run and 6 RBI performance by Albert Pujols, but it was Allen Craig that got all of the scoring started, and early.   In the top of the first inning, Craig sent a Matt Harrison pitch deep into the left field seats for an early 1-0 lead.  That one hit silenced the huge Arlington crowd and totally took away all of the momentum gained when Texas stole a win late in Game Two.  Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina took care of the rest, but Craig’s hit was the one that delivered the message – don’t mess with the Cardinals.

October 27 – Texas at St. Louis

This was one of the most exciting games I’ve ever seen.  Period.   It was like the entire 2011 season played out over 11 innings.   The game will be forever remembered the Texas being down to the last strike from their first championship, not once but twice, and the Cardinals coming back each time.   It will be remembered for the David Freese walk off home run in the 11th inning, deep into the center field grass.

None of this would have happened if not for one at bat by Allen Craig in the eighth inning.  At the time, the Cardinals were trailing 7-4 and Derek Holland was into the game in relief.  Holland had held the Cardinals scoreless for 8 1/3 innings in Game Four and was doing that again in his third inning of work.

Allen Craig turned on Holland’s second delivery and sent the ball deep into the left field seats for a solo home run.   At the time, Craig’s run was more of a footnote than a turning point.  All of that changed one inning later when the Cardinals score a pair of runs on a David Freese triple.  If Craig does not hit that home run, Texas might have won the game, and the World Series.

October 28 – Texas at St. Louis

Game Seven of the World Series.  The winner goes home a champion and the loser looks forward to repeating next year.  In a cruel bit of irony, Texas jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead in the first inning, the same lead they had in the ninth and tenth innings the night before.   And just as the Cardinals did in those two occasions, they quickly tied the game thanks to a David Freese double.

This game will be remembered for the gutsy performance of Chris Carpenter, throwing on short rest.   Or perhaps Jason Motte finally earning the title of closer, joining Bruce Sutter and Adam Wainwright as the last two relievers to close out a World Series in St. Louis.   Maybe we will remember Yadier Molina collapsing at home plate, relieved that the season was finally over, or Tony La Russa finally showing some cheer as he ran out of the dugout.

Do you know who drove in the game winning run ?   It was not David Freese, Albert Pujols, Lance Berkman or Matt Holliday (who did not even play).   It was Allen Craig, and it happened in the third inning.   Just as he had done in Game Three, Craig launched a Matt Harrison 3-2 pitch deep into the seats for a 3-2 Cardinals lead.     Two innings later, the control problems that had plagued the Rangers pitchers caught up to them, and St. Louis extended the lead to 5-2.   That would be the final score as Octavio Dotel, Arthur Rhodes, Lance Lynn and Jason Motte get the final nine outs.   And the Cardinals earn their eleventh title.

That’s right, Mr. Craig.  You can clap now because you are no longer a AAAA player.  You have a World Series Championship, and instrumental in winning it.  David Freese earned the NLCS and WS MVP awards with an amazing display of offense, but let’s not forget Allen Craig’s role in making that happen.  Craig also has very bright future and we look forward to seeing many more images like this.

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