- David Schoenfield, SweetSpot blogger
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This could be one of those games. Not a momentum game, since that’s a term that attempts to describe mass and velocity of an object, not something that happens in the standings. No, it’s more like one of those games you remember when the season is over and your team has won the division title or reached the playoffs. One of those games that sticks out in your memory, like a first kiss or, if you're a Reds fan, a flat tire.
Allen Craig hit a big grand slam in the seventh inning as the St. Louis Cardinals rallied to beat the Cincinnati Reds 8-6, moving the Cardinals a half-game past the idle Pittsburgh Pirates and back into first place in the NL Central for the first time since July 29. Put this game in your back pocket and check back in five weeks.
The Reds were in command, leading 5-3 heading into the bottom of the seventh. Teams that lead entering the seventh have won 86 percent of the time this season; the Reds were 57-7, an 89 percent success rate. The Cardinals were 7-38 when trailing in the seventh. Odds of them pulling this one out? About 1-in-10.
Craig delivered that one. With one run already in, J.J. Hoover had entered with runners on second and third and two outs to face Matt Holliday. He fired six four-seam fastballs to Holliday, who finally drew the walk on a 3-2 pitch that was low and outside. That brought up Craig with the bases juiced and Craig loves to hit in that situation. He was 6-for-9 this year with two sacrifice flies and a .433 average in his relatively brief career.
He’d never hit a grand slam, though.
Hoover reared back and threw another four-seam fastball. The radar guns would clock it at 95 mph.
This is one of those moments that make baseball so great. Craig is one of the best fastball hitters in the game. In fact, his .404 average against fastballs leads the majors. When putting the first pitch in play, he’s hitting .453 -- 14th in the majors -- because, again, he’s a good fastball hitter. Get ahead in the count and you can put him away with offspeed stuff. If you get ahead.
Hoover is a fastball pitcher. He has thrown 971 pitches this season, 726 of them fastballs. His second pitch is a curveball. But Hoover is a fastball guy -- a high fastball guy. Fastball hitter versus fastball pitcher.
Probably would have been a good time for Reds catcher Devin Mesoraco to call for a curveball on the first pitch. Maybe a more veteran catcher -- say, Yadier Molina or Ryan Hanigan -- calls for a breaking ball there, knowing Craig’s killer instinct against fastballs.
Mesoraco set up low and away, but Hoover caught the middle of the plate. Craig lined it over the wall in right, drawing a curtain call from the home fans after the high-fives and smiles in the dugout. A first-pitch fastball to Allen Craig with the bases loaded, the smiles seemed to say, are you kidding?
Craig is kind of the unsung hero of the Cardinals, at least outside of St. Louis. He hasn’t matched his power numbers of a year ago -- in just 21 more at-bats he has nine fewer home runs -- but he’s still been a big run producer, hitting in the cleanup spot most of the season. Manager Mike Matheny kept him there despite Craig not homering until May 4. He has rewarded his manager with 95 RBIs, tied for second in the NL with Brandon Phillips behind Paul Goldschmidt’s 101.
Yes, Craig has had guys getting on base in front of him in the deep St. Louis lineup, including leadoff batter Matt Carpenter, who leads the NL in runs scored. But he has also done his best hitting with men on base. Craig is hitting .317 overall, but .452 with runners in scoring position. While he strikes out 17 percent of the time overall, he cuts that down to 10 percent with RISP -- an approach that suggests he’s cutting down on his swing, looking to put the ball in play more than looking for the home run.
Just as importantly, he has stayed healthy all season after playing 119 games last year and 75 in 2011, when he was a key bench player who hit three home runs in the World Series.
Craig is no longer a bench guy. He's an All-Star and maybe the toughest out in the St. Louis lineup.
Especially if you try to sneak a fast one past him.