Craig in better spot to rediscover Major League form
Much less pressure for former All-Star at Pawtucket after stats fell off in St. Louis, Boston
By Alec Shirkey
PAWTUCKET, R.I. -- The air is humid and sticky on a Friday afternoon as the PawSox take batting practice at McCoy Stadium, the sweltering sun a reminder that the dog days of August are at their zenith. Nestled among the Major League hopefuls and the Minor League lifers gathered on the field, Allen Craig diligently takes his pregame cuts before walking toward the clubhouse, sweat still rolling off his face.
At 31 years old, Craig does not carry himself with the demeanor of someone who served as a middle-of-the-order bat for the Cardinals, compiling a .315 batting average, 97 RBIs, 29 doubles and 13 home runs on a team that won the National League pennant two years ago. The first baseman/corner outfielder is soft-spoken, unassuming and focused on reclaiming his old self -- the one that hit .300 three years in a row.
Craig's time at Triple-A Pawtucket has been humbling. But the cautious optimism hidden in his words show that, perhaps sooner than later, he could be hitting that way once again.
"I think I've done all right," said Craig. "I've done pretty good. I've had good at-bats, hit the ball hard. I think I've walked a lot. I've been really patient. I think I've been going with what they've been giving me. I felt like over the last month or so, I've put some things together. Just hitting the ball hard. I feel good."
Spending his summer months at McCoy wasn't what Craig or the Red Sox envisioned when they acquired him from the Cards last season, believing that the struggles of 2014 were an outlier. But after seeing only 52 at-bats in about five weeks with Boston, Craig was optioned to Pawtucket on May 9 and was later outrighted after clearing waivers.
If there was a silver lining, it was that Craig now had better opportunities to correct his game in a less stressful environment.
"I think that first and foremost, I came down, I got the chance to play every day," Craig said. "That's kind of what I've been used to the last few years of my career. So it was kind of nice to get back to that. As far as perspective goes, I don't really take anything for granted."
In the weeks since, PawSox hitting coach Rich Gedman has been tasked with helping Craig "remember the player that he was." From the internal pressure to succeed to the external pressure of living up to past performance and his contract extension -- let alone moving past the foot injury that hampered him throughout 2014 -- Gedman is well-acquainted with the obstacles facing Craig on a daily basis.
"What happens is you think you got to be more than you are," Gedman said. "What happens, every swing is measured in comparison to the best swings you've ever taken. And to me, I don't think that's the way it really should be. You get paid a lot of money for what you do. And he's got numbers to back why he got paid the type of money he got paid.
"One of the things that's very difficult is when you get injured, you lose time. When you lose time, you lose that rhythm and timing, that feeling of being invincible. And everything's played on your time. Now what happens is you feel like you're playing catch-up. You get traded, and now you play with emotion."
Whatever emotion was affecting his game before, Craig is starting to overcome it.
In 89 games at Pawtucket, Craig has hit .272 with a .369 on-base percentage. Coaches agree that his ability to make contact and draw walks is slowly returning. And while the power has yet to completely resurface, recent weeks have shown considerable promise: Craig is slugging .448 with five doubles and a home run since Aug. 12.
"It's the process with him," PawSox manager Kevin Boles said. "Everybody wanted immediate results right away. What we're looking at is the quality of the at-bats and working a count. Another thing too is we've got a couple more bats in this lineup. So he doesn't feel like he has to shoulder all the load. Because he's been out there on an island for a little bit. But now having [Carlos] Rivero and Chris Marrero in this lineup, we've got some length to it."
Although Craig is not on the 40-man roster and the chance for a callup might seem slim, he is still hopeful that he could return to the Red Sox when rosters expand Tuesday.
"That's the goal is to get back to the big leagues," Craig said. "I try not to look too far in the future. Just try to focus on today, take care of what I need to take care of. I don't make those decisions. I just need to focus on playing."
There was a time when Craig's confidence faltered. Gedman has been on hand for some of his toughest moments, and he recalls a player who felt frustrated, sorry for himself and rushed to return to the Majors.
Now, Gedman sees a player whose trying times in the Minor Leagues have transformed him into a stronger person, better-equipped to handle his shortcomings.
"I think he's grown as a person, as a player. And he's getting closer to where he needs to be to compete every day at the big league level," Gedman said. "He's become a better teammate because of it, because of the experience he's gone through. And now he's going to be a great player again.
"It might not be on his time. But he's going to be a great player again."
Alec Shirkey is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.