Who in the world is Allen Craig?
DH rule lands Cardinals' pinch-hitting phenom a starting role in Texas
ARLINGTON, Texas -- St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Allen Craig grew up in Temecula, Calif., the same town that produced Chicago Cubs outfielder Reed Johnson, former Denver Broncos running back Terrell Davis, actor Jack Klugman of "Oscar Madison" fame and a construction worker named Larry Fortensky, best known as the final husband of Elizabeth Taylor.
It's going to be awhile, if ever, before Craig's name appears on a "Welcome to Temecula" sign at the city limits. But at the very least, he's working his way toward a more prominent mention on Temecula's Wikipedia page.
Craig, 27, turned around a 98 mph Alexi Ogando fastball for the winning hit in St. Louis' 3-2 victory in the World Series opener at Busch Stadium. Then Groundhog Day arrived. In Game 2, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa summoned him for a second straight pinch-hit appearance, and Craig drove a 96 mph Ogando heater to right field for a single to break a scoreless tie. He was the talk of baseball for about a half-hour, until Texas rallied against the St. Louis bullpen in the ninth inning to alter the storyline and the tone of the Series.
But we haven't seen the last of Craig. Amid the change in rules as play shifts to the American League park, La Russa plans to start Craig in right field Saturday night against left-hander Matt Harrison and use Lance Berkman at DH. La Russa hasn't determined his plans beyond that, but Craig is sure to be in the lineup somewhere.
Craig made consecutive starts against Philadelphia's Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels in the division series, so he's not about to melt over the prospect of an expanded role in the World Series. As La Russa recently observed, Craig is an "everyday player who has been waiting to play every day." But with his parents, sister, fiancée and a couple of buddies from California in Texas for the games this weekend and the Cardinals only three wins from a parade, Craig is understandably stoked.
Craig has already made some obscure history this October. He just joined Dusty Rhodes, Del Unser and Hal McRae as one of four players to collect an RBI in three straight postseason pinch-hit appearances. And Thursday he became the third player to produce a go-ahead hit in the sixth inning or later of consecutive World Series games. Craig joined Duke Snider of the 1952 Brooklyn Dodgers and Amos Otis of the 1980 Kansas City Royals as the only hitters to achieve the feat.
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That second designation has special meaning to Craig, because he played high school ball with Snider's grandson, Brandon, and once participated in a home run derby that Snider organized each year for high school players in Fallbrook, Calif. As Craig recalls, he did not fare well in the competition.
"I think I was too fired up," he said. "I was pulling all my home runs foul down the left-field line."
Craig's athleticism extends beyond the ball field. At Temecula Chaparral High School, he was a baseball prospect and a dead-eye 3-point marksman in basketball. He connected on 94 treys as a senior, but Division I programs weren't exactly clamoring for 6-foot-2 shooting guards, so he attended the University of California, where he obtained a bachelor's degree in social welfare and signed with St. Louis as an eighth-round pick in the 2006 draft.
Craig played out of position as a shortstop at Berkeley, but the late Jay North, his signing scout, thought his bat might play at the big league level. So the Cardinals gave Craig a $15,000 bonus and signed him as a fourth-year senior.
Craig hit .307 with an .885 OPS over six minor league seasons, and was named the Cardinals' minor league player of the year while playing for Triple-A Memphis in 2009. The biggest rap against Craig is that he lacks a natural position defensively. But from the glass-half-full perspective, he's versatile enough to open up a host of possibilities.
If the Cardinals fail to re-sign Albert Pujols this winter, maybe Craig slides in at first base. Or more likely, the Cardinals could move Berkman to first and play Craig in right field. David Freese has third base locked up, but during a news conference this week, La Russa wouldn't rule out the possibility of Craig playing second base at some point for the Cardinals.
"I think he has the potential to be an impact bat in the lineup," said St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak. "He's going to be an everyday player at the major league level and contribute in a big way in the middle of an order. He has a lot of upside. Just look at his success in the minor leagues. He's always hit."
For a young player, he knows himself, and that's very important for success. I think he could be a .300 hitter with anywhere from 18 to 25 to 30 home runs.” -- The Cardinals' Matt Holliday on Craig
In a 2010 St. Louis Post-Dispatch profile, Craig's manager in Memphis praised him for his "super-live barrel," and the team's hitting coach lauded him for his "electric hands." That's baseball-speak for, "This guy is legit."
Craig's best attributes were on display with a patient, smart approach at the plate in Games 1 and 2. When Ogando threw fastballs over the heart of the plate, Craig was content to wait and drive them the opposite way. He made a nationwide impression with those two singles, but his St. Louis teammates knew he had it in him.
"He knows what he's doing," said Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday. "The most impressive thing is, he stays inside the ball really well. For a young player, he knows himself, and that's very important for success.
"I think he could be a .300 hitter with anywhere from 18 to 25 to 30 home runs. ... Obviously, he needs the opportunity to prove he can do that over a whole season, but he has that kind of ability."
Craig, humble and soft-spoken in interviews, says he's too preoccupied with the Cardinals' postseason ride to give much thought to his long-term prospects with the club. After making the most of his cameos, he'll have the luxury of four or five at-bats per night against Harrison, fellow lefties Derek Holland and C.J. Wilson, and the Texas bullpen this weekend.
The opportunity awaits for him to make an impression. All he needs to do is take advantage of it.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter @jcrasnick.
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