Out of action since Sept. 4, first baseman to DH in Games 1 and 2
BOSTON -- The return of the injured ballplayer is marked with several mileposts over the course of the rehab route.
For Allen Craig and his left-foot sprain, that's meant the usual progression from hitting to throwing to running, and that physical progression will culminate with his return to the Cardinals' lineup as the designnated hitter in Game 1 of the World Series against the Red Sox on Wednesday (airing at 6:30 p.m. CT on FOX; first pitch at 7:07).
But for Craig, who has been out since Sept. 4, the process of staying mentally sharp has been equally important during his time on the pine. Because Craig's greatest strength -- one that doubles as the Cardinals' greatest team-wide offensive strength -- is his ability to make the mental adjustments within an at-bat that guide his remarkable production with runners in scoring position.
"I haven't been playing," Craig said, "but I'm always watching what's going on in the games. During the games, I go back and forth from the video room to the dugout. I try to keep my mind on the game as much as I can. It's tough to replicate Game 1 of the World Series, but I feel I've done a good job of preparing."
The Cards certainly hope so, because their batting order becomes markedly more dangerous and deep with Craig occupying the American League-only lineup spot in the first two games of the Series.
Perhaps the most important element of their offense in this Series will be whether or not Craig's so-called clutchness -- be it in the DH slot in Games 1 or 2 or in a pinch-hit capacity back at Busch Stadium -- shows any signs of rust.
Before his regular season was cut short, Craig had a .454 batting average and .500 on-base percentage in 152 plate appearances with runners in scoring position, compared with a .267 average and .326 OBP in all other trips to the plate. The only players in the last four decades who had a higher average than Craig with RISP were George Brett in 1980 (.469) and Tony Gwynn in 1997 (.459).
But repeatable? Predictable? Craig has heard those questions all season long, because there is plenty of historical precedent to suggest that hitters ultimately revert to their career means, no matter the specific situation. Statisticians ultimately suggest that a "clutch" hitter is nothing more than a good hitter who happened to come through when it counts and that past clutchness is not necessarily an indication of future clutchness.
Craig knows that's a popular opinion, but he also believes there is something fundamental about the way both he and this Cards team as a whole approaches those at-bats.
"I think we're extremely good at it" he said. "We did a pretty darn good job all season of being consistent in that regard. A lot of guys had career years with runners in scoring position. We're doing something right."
The Cards hit an absurd .330 with RISP this season, breaking the record held by the 1950 Red Sox (.312), and that dictated an overall improvement on their 2012 run production despite a 21 percent drop in their total number of home runs. They didn't fare as well in the National League Division Series round against the Pirates (.185 average with RISP), but they were back at it in the NL Championship Series against the Dodgers (.349).
They don't believe it happens by accident.
"It's just individual," Carlos Beltran said. "No organization can teach that. You've got to focus and hopefully get the most out of each at-bat. I feel like this year we've done a pretty good job of that."
By and large, the Cards -- particularly Craig -- are predictably vague about what it is they do in those situations, but it is certainly an element of the game that is stressed to them from the first day of Spring Training, when hitting coach John Mabry subjects them to situational hitting drills that require a vivid imagination and a strong approach, and throughout the year.
For Craig, the approach was taken to the extreme in 2013, and when asked to dissect that approach late in the season, just before the injury, he declined.
"I don't want to talk about approach or how I do it," he said. "I just want to let it ride out."
Now, we'll see if Craig can ride it out in October, despite so much missed time. He's been working at getting his swing up to game speed the last couple weeks, but what might matter just as much is how sharp his mind is if he comes to bat with the game on the line. After all, much of Craig's success is tied to his understanding of what the opposing pitcher is trying to do against him and what he needs to do to find a pitch to hit.
That's why Craig has spent so much time on the bench and in the video room, watching, thinking, anticipating. Even before he was cleared by medical personnel to perform baseball activities, he was mentally in-tune with them.
"The mental side of it is something I never really turn off," he said. "I don't think any of us do that when we're hurt. We watch the game, we think the game. It's just what we do. The most important thing for me is the physical ability to be out there and contribute."
Craig is now cleared to contribute, albeit in a limited capacity, and the Cards expect nothing less than for him to come through when it counts.
"This guy, we all know about the numbers he's brought," center fielder Jon Jay said. "But he grinds out at-bats and he's a tough out. He's a huge threat."