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News on Craig good, but still not great

First baseman will miss significant playing time despite avoiding major injury @castrovince

CINCINNATI -- The news on Allen Craig on Thursday was good news for the Cardinals. Or at least as good as it was going to get.

Craig did not sustain a fracture when he rolled his ankle running to first in Wednesday's win over the Reds, just a sprain, and so this was not a season-ending setback for the man who has been arguably the most valuable offensive piece of this club.

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The news had manager Mike Matheny breathing easier before the series finale at Great American Ball Park.

"You watch him go down like he did," Matheny said, "and watch him have trouble getting off the field, and you wonder if he's going to play the rest of the season. I think right now we're optimistic that we're going to see him this year at some point."

Ah, but therein lies the trouble: The Cards don't know when, exactly, Craig will be back. Or if they do, they're not saying.

Realistically, though, Craig will miss what can only be considered a significant portion of the remaining season schedule, if only because that season schedule contains just 22 more games. He's wearing a walking boot and using crutches to get around and will be re-evaluated by foot and ankle specialist Dr. Joshua Nadaud next week.

Even if he misses only a week, that's still about a quarter of the remaining slate. His absence will loom large in those games. After all, three of those games, you might have noticed, will be played against the Pirates this weekend. So the Cards will be without their cleanup man for their final head-to-heads in the Central's title-seeking troika, just as they were without him in Thursday's frustrating 6-2 loss to the Reds, a loss that prolonged an eight-game stretch in which the Cards averaged just 2.12 runs, the worst in baseball over that span.

This injury, therefore, is a big deal for a variety of reasons, the first and most obvious of which being that Craig has been a force in the middle of the order. Entering Thursday, his 97 RBIs ranked third in the NL, and his .454 batting average with runners in scoring position was threatening to be the best by any Major Leaguer since Tony Gwynn hit .459 with RISP in 1997. And whether or not you're inclined to dismiss the notion of that clout in the clutch as a repeatable skill, the fact of the matter is that Craig's right-handed bat has been the heart and soul of a Cards club that has largely struggled against lefties.

On Thursday night it was lefty Tony Cingrani on the mound for the Redlegs, and the Redbirds' struggles continued. The Cards drew three walks off Cingrani and didn't take advantage of any of them, grounding into a pair of double plays.

This was the extension of a season-long trend. The Cards entered the evening with the Majors' sixth-lowest team OPS against left-handed pitching. The struggles of David Freese (.257/.331/.404 entering Thursday) have been particularly vexing, because his 2011-12 performance against southpaws (.330/.394/.497) was such a strength.

These days Matheny uses the former World Series hero essentially as a platoon player against left-handed pitching, but Freese has had trouble holding up his end of the bargain. He did, however, take Cingrani deep with a solo shot and singled off the sometimes-untouchable Aroldis Chapman on Thursday -- encouraging signs that the Cards hope lead to bigger things.

"You look at our lineup, and we should give lefties a hard time," Matheny said. "But it's going to be night to night, how guys are executing their pitches and how our guys are staying with what their gameplan is. Regardless of what the numbers say, I say this shouldn't be a club that has trouble against left-handed pitching."

You look at the Minor League numbers of the left-handed-hitting Matt Adams, Craig's replacement at first base, and you wouldn't expect the lefty struggles he has also endured in recent months.

In the second half, Adams has notched just a single hit in 22 at-bats off southpaws. Clearly, that is a minuscule sample, and it's unfair to harp on it, especially given Adams' reserve role. But his progress in that area is going to be a pivotal point of interest in the coming days. (Just as the Reds did with Cingrani, the Pirates are bringing back lefty Jeff Locke for Saturday's start.) Adams struck out twice against Cingrani on Thursday and grounded into a double play off lefty reliever Manny Parra.

"We've put him in there in big situations against tough lefties, and he's put together good at-bats," Matheny said. "That's about all we can ask. … I don't want to shy away from the left-handed pitching for him. I think he's on his way to proving that he can be an everyday guy, and that everyday guy typically can stand in there against the lefties as well."

With Adams there is much to like, as evidenced by the 14th- and 16th-inning solo shots that propelled the Cards to Wednesday's win. But he's also a young hitter who will have to adjust to the opposition attempting to avoid feeding him the low fastball while peppering him with a steady diet of changeups and sliders. It's an adjustment he now has to make while thrust into the pulse of the pennant race, and Matheny, meanwhile, will have to adjust to a weakened bench.

So that's why the good news on Craig wasn't entirely good. With so much riding on some young and relatively unproven pieces in the rotation down the stretch and three huge games on the immediate horizon, the last thing the Cards needed was a lineup loss of this magnitude.

Because this time of year -- and particularly in the sport's most captivating division race -- every absence is magnified.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.

St. Louis Cardinals, Allen Craig