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LOUIS -- Baseball people have a sixth sense about these things, the way animals can supposedly feel an earthquake coming before the ground begins to tremble. They look at a hitter who, at least according to the box scores, remains mired in a slump. They nudge each other and nod.
There's something barely detectable about his swing that's different. He's about to get hot. They just know it.
That's what happened with Matt Holliday recently. The Cardinals were taking batting practice before their Wild Card playoff game against the Braves at Turner Field in Atlanta. And the players and staff around the cage began to perk up when the left fielder stepped in to take his cuts.
"There were a couple players pointing out that this could be Matt's postseason. He did pretty well last year, too, but you could just sort of see it," St. Louis hitting coach Mark McGwire said with a smile after the Cardinals ran through a light workout at Busch Stadium in preparation for Game 1 of the NLDS against the Nationals on Sunday afternoon.
Baseball's distant early-warning system was right again. Holliday hit a big homer in the sixth inning, went 2-for-3 overall and reached base when hit by a pitch. Now he looks like he could be poised to go on a tear at just the right time. Which would be a real boost for the Cardinals, who watched as he went through a 23-game stretch late in the season during which he batted .198 with 26 strikeouts.
"There's ebb and flow in the game, and certainly I told him before the playoffs started, because he was in a little bit of a lull, I said, 'Man, this is perfect.' Because you just know that a good hitter like that is not going to stay in that lull forever. I said, 'This is going to work out great, because you're going to get hot right at the right time,'" said veteran first baseman Lance Berkman, a career .296 hitter with 360 home runs who is sidelined by a right knee injury.
It's true that baseball is a streaky game under the best circumstances. But, in Holliday's case, there was more to it than that. He was hitting as high as .325 with a .952 OPS through July 27. It was about that time he began experiencing pain in his hip. In September, his back began to bother him. For the rest of the year, he hit .248 with a .755 OPS.
McGwire was asked if Holliday, who offered no excuses for his slump, is now healthier or just getting hot.
"A little bit of both," McGwire said. "Dealing with the back issue and little nicks and pains and whatever you want to say. He's just one of those guys, he'll tough it out. And it's great to see. Those guys in the clubhouse see it. There were many days when [manager Mike Matheny] wanted to give him a day off, and he refused to take them. And that goes a long way."
Added Matheny: "Either way, it's nice to see. It's scary to watch when he really gets going. I believe it's always health related. This season beats you down physically, and then you begin to doubt a little bit in your mental approach, and they all go hand-in-hand.
"But once it starts going right for a guy like Matt, they just seem to pile up. Towards the end of the season, we were seeing a single here and hard-hit balls and hard outs. And you could see his timing getting a little bit better, to where his body is cooperating, and that turns into confidence which turns into success. The big home run [Friday]. He can accidentally hit a lot of those when his timing gets right, and right now he looks very good."
McGwire said that it doesn't take much to start turning a slump around.
"You can tell when a guy is about to get hot," he said. "It's as simple as one pitch. That's what it is. Confidence is huge. Confidence makes you feel good about yourself. Getting a hit, getting a pitch.
"You know, Matt is on a different level than a lot of players in this league. Everybody goes through struggles. Everybody goes through good times. I can't remember when the at-bat was, but you could sort of see there was a different way he was attacking the ball. And then you just go, 'Oh, OK. That's it.' Then you can just see the confidence."
The Cardinals have more than one hitter who can carry a team in the postseason. Carlos Beltran did it for the Astros in 2005. David Freese did it for St. Louis just last year. Still, Holliday is the No. 3 hitter, the guy who is counted on to produce, especially in this first season after Albert Pujols' departure. And when he's going well, that confidence can radiate up and down the lineup.
"The thing about a guy like Matt, your elite-class hitters, when the playoffs roll around, it doesn't matter how they feel. They're going to have good at-bats and they're going to get some things done," said Berkman. "It will be interesting to see, because he's one of those guys who, if he gets hot, he'll carry this team maybe to the World Series [like he did with the Rockies in 2007]. I'm anxious to see, because he got off to a great start. I feel like his swing is in a good spot. And it's always good as a hitter when you have a good first game. It kind of gets your confidence going a little bit, and that's obviously a big thing in baseball."
If Holliday can combine his talent with health and confidence, that can only be good news for the Cardinals in the postseason.