Barring any last-minute hiccups, Allen Craig should make his return to the Cardinals lineup Wednesday night at Fenway Park. And it couldn’t have come at a better time for St. Louis.
The National League champs have been an excellent offensive team this year, leading the NL in runs scored during the regular season and coming alive late to overwhelm the Dodgers’ elite arms in the NLCS.
But without a healthy Craig, the Cards would be entering the World Series with a Big Papi-sized hole in the middle of their lineup.
Craig, a first-time All-Star at first base this season, has not played in a game since Sept. 4, spending the last month and a half recovering from a mid-foot sprain. St. Louis has not been able to replicate his eye-popping numbers (.315/.373/.457 with team-leading 97 RBIs, plus an astounding .454 average and 1.138 OPS with runners in scoring position), but big-bodied rookie Matt Adams has done a fine job filling in at first base in his absence.
Adams led the team in slugging (.503) through 107 regular-season games, and he’s continued to swing the bat relatively well in the playoffs, leading all starters with a .268 average in 11 games. But with the Fall Classic opening at Fenway, the first two games will be played under American League rules. And without Craig in the lineup, that could mean bad news for the Cardinals.
Thus far in the postseason, St. Louis has seen a precipitous drop in production from everyone outside of its starting eight position players. Against the Pirates and Dodgers, the Cardinals’ four additional (non-pitcher) bats — Daniel Descalso, Shane Robinson, Adron Chambers and Kolten Wong — combined to go 6-for-34 with zero extra-base hits and zero walks. The designated hitter will be used for all World Series games played in Boston, meaning that while the Red Sox will get to trot out David Ortiz as their hitting specialist, the Cardinals’ options are limited to those four struggling bats.
Craig’s return changes all of that, however. Instead of relying on a role player to occupy a spot in the starting batting order, St. Louis will be able to plug one of the game’s best clutch hitters in alongside Adams, Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday and playoff legend Carlos Beltran. All four have notched double-digit hits during this postseason, while only two Red Sox hitters (Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia) can say the same.
While the Cardinals’ lineup doesn’t possess quite the same depth as the Red Sox’, that potent quintet has the potential — if Craig proves that his injury is no longer an issue — to cause problems in a series that appears to be about as evenly matched as they come.