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Craig's potent bat is steady force for Cards

ATL View Full Game Coverage ANTA -- The lineup manager Mike Matheny will hand in for Friday's Wild Card game against Atlanta will feature a group of position players that have made a combined 18 All-Star appearances. And yet, arguably the best current hitter in the bunch has yet to make his first Midsummer Classic.

Perhaps once overshadowed by teammates with far more accolades and national notoriety, Allen Craig should be an unknown no more. He has become a cornerstone of an offense that, while collectively hot-and-cold all season, has come to expect consistent production from Craig.

"He's in a different position than he was last year, because now his name is a household name in the baseball world," hitting coach Mark McGwire said. "They're not going to go, 'Oh, let's see what Allen Craig can do.' No, they already know what Allen Craig can do."

For those who weren't entirely blinded by what David Freese was doing last October, they witnessed Craig's own coming-out party on the national stage. He delivered three home runs in the World Series and tied the Major League record with three World Series game-winning RBIs.

He did it all, too, while dealing with a compromised right knee, which Craig would have surgery on less than a month after gloving the final out of the World Series.

That offseason procedure cast into question where Craig could fit in 2012. Carlos Beltran was signed to play right field. Lance Berkman had already been re-signed to shift to first base in case Albert Pujols left, as he later did. It left Craig in limbo.

The only way Craig knew, with certainty, how to force himself into the mix was by showing the Cardinals he was too potent an offensive threat to leave out.

"I also knew that they liked me a lot as a player, and that I just needed to focus on getting healthy," Craig said. "I knew that if I got healthy, they'd try to find at-bats for me."

Craig missed the first month of the 2012 season still recovering from knee surgery, and had another setback in May when a strained hamstring put him back on the disabled list. He returned two weeks later and, this time, found himself finally with the opportunity for everyday at-bats.

With Berkman down from his own knee problems, Craig seized the opportunity to step in as the team's everyday first baseman.

While holding his own defensively, Craig went on to play in a career-high 119 games. He drove in 92, hit .307 and finished with a slugging percentage of .522. Each of those totals ranked in the National League's Top 15. He was one of five Cardinal hitters to finish the season with at least 20 homers. He finished with 22.

"Allen Craig has been huge," Skip Schumaker said. "It feels like every time a guy is on second, he's driving in somebody. I don't know where we would be without him in our lineup every day."

Indeed, Craig was his best in run-scoring spots. He finishes the year with a Major League-best .400 batting average with runners in scoring position. Thirty-one of his RBIs came with two outs; nine of them were game-winners.

"You get guys in scoring position and you give him too many opportunities, he's eventually going to make something happen," Matheny said. "That's what he does. There are some guys who really do make the most of those opportunities, and Allen's stats really back that up."

The more Beltran began to struggle, the more often Matheny inserted Craig into the cleanup spot. By late August, Craig's name was there daily. Beltran and Matt Holliday hit in front of him. Yadier Molina and Freese protected him from behind.

In 64 games as the four-hole hitter, Craig batted .303 with 12 homers and 14 doubles.

"I've always thought of myself as a guy that could hit in the middle of the order, and stuff like that," Craig said. "I'm definitely excited about the opportunity to hit fourth on this team. It's an honor, and I like doing it."

Finding a fit won't be an issue for Craig in the long term, as he sets up to be the team's starting first baseman again in 2013. The Cardinals also don't have to worry about Craig entering the free-agent market until after the 2016 season, though McGwire noted that if he were on the management team, he'd "lock him up as soon as possible."

But on Friday -- and perhaps for several more days this month -- the focus will be not on Craig's rising stock but on what he offers now. And in that case, the immediate is as appealing as the future is bright.

"I feel like I have a pretty good idea of what I want to do up there," Craig said. "Add in all these other guys [who] have put up great numbers over the years, and I just feel like it's going to make me better by talking to them and listening to what they have to say. It's been a blessing that I've been on this team and in this organization, for sure."

St. Louis Cardinals, Allen Craig