10/14/11 1:33 AM ET
La Russa gets results from Holliday, Craig
By Jenifer Langosch / MLB.com
So La Russa sat Lance Berkman, dropped Matt Holliday in the batting order and inserted Allen Craig. Together, it all triggered a pair of early solo homers -- one from Holliday, the second from Craig -- that staked St. Louis to an early lead Thursday.
Though the advantage eventually dissolved into a 4-2 loss to the Brewers in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series, La Russa proved that a predicament can certainly convert into a luxury. It's simply dependent on viewpoint.
The Cards needed Craig through mid- and late-September, when he assumed a regular spot in the lineup while filling in for injured teammates and against left-handed pitchers. Seizing the regular playing time, he thrived. St. Louis called on him early in the NL Division Series, too, when Holliday was still bothered by a strained right hand tendon.
But since Oct. 4, Craig's postseason experience had totaled two at-bats -- both coming as a pinch-hitter.
The absence of opportunity had nothing to do with any hesitancy in Craig's ability to produce. Rather, La Russa has had a logjam -- an enviable one -- since Holliday's hand was suitable enough for him to reclaim his starting role.
With Holliday in left and Berkman in right, Craig's default position was back on the bench.
"I'm kind of used to it," Craig said. "Throughout the year, that's been my role, to jump in whenever I'm needed. I've gone a week or two without playing, and then jump in and play for two weeks straight. Whenever they call on me, I'm prepared, and I'm ready to go."
La Russa assumed as much on Thursday when, instead of choosing between a still hand-hampered Holliday and Craig, the St. Louis manager started both. With Berkman nursing a sore right thigh and a .093 batting average in 32 career at-bats against Brewers starter Randy Wolf, La Russa saw an opportunity to get Craig involved.
The timing seemed appropriate, with Craig boasting a .313 batting average against lefties this year. Surely on purpose, La Russa conveniently left out the part about Craig entering the night 0-for-12 against Wolf in 2011.
That proved to be no harbinger.
After an innocuous groundout in his first at-bat, Craig came up in the third and popped a solo shot over the wall in right-center. At the time, the homer staked St. Louis to a 2-0 lead. The RBI was his first this postseason, though the hit was hardly his first of consequence in the past month.
"I believe in myself," Craig said afterward. "I've always believed in myself as a player. I just have to make the most of my opportunities. Today was an opportunity. I just went out there and did my best, and showed them what I can do."
A statement it might be for a national audience just now meeting this club's other corner outfielder, one who Berkman said "would be hitting fourth in about three-quarters of the lineups in the Major Leagues."
The dilemma is, though, that the makeup of this Cardinals club puts Craig in the other quarter. And that's why the 27-year-old right-handed hitter will likely be back on the bench in Game 5, handing that right-field spot back over to Berkman to face Brewers right-hander Zack Greinke.
Holliday won't sit, however, and that makes his night on Thursday especially important to the Cards. After an ineffective Game 3 showing in which he twice followed an intentional walk to Albert Pujols with a strikeout, Holliday reached base in three of his four plate appearances.
Having been bumped from the cleanup hole to the fifth spot in the batting order, Holliday snuck a solo homer over the right-field wall in his first at-bat, giving the left fielder his first home run this postseason.
"He's just a big strong guy, and you know, I think all three of us -- me, [Brewers catcher] George [Kottaras] and Matt -- we were all kind of surprised that went out," said Wolf, who surrendered the 342-foot shot. "But he's a strong enough guy. It's like trying to pitch to [Chicago Bears linebacker] Brian Urlacher. He's a beast."
A walk and double capped Holliday's day.
"He's a perennial All-Star player in the middle of our lineup," Craig said of Holliday. "When he's hot, it really makes us go. He's swinging the bat well, so that's a good sign for us going into these last few games against the Brewers."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.