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Performer of the Game: Cardinals' Craig

Performer of the Game: Cardinals' Craig

Performer of the Game: Cardinals' Craig
ST. LOUIS -- Allen Craig leaped to attention in the fifth inning Wednesday, knowing the bottom of the Cardinals' lineup was due up in the sixth. He began a process that by now has become routine: loosening up his legs, stretching, hitting off a tee, watching video of Rangers pitching. These are things that Craig has learned in two seasons as a Cards pinch-hitter.

Craig knew he would need extra time to loosen given the cold, damp conditions at Busch Stadium throughout Wednesday's World Series Game 1, so he prepared accordingly. He knew he might face Texas starter C.J. Wilson, but he also figured there was a reasonable chance he would face hard-throwing right-handed reliever Alexi Ogando. To be safe, he prepared for both.

In short, Craig said, "I was ready."

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The result has already become a small part of St. Louis baseball lore. Ogando entered. Craig dug in. Ogando threw four straight fastballs. Craig smacked the last of them into right field for a go-ahead RBI single. And the Redbirds took that slimmest of margins and made it seem fat, nursing it to a 3-2 victory and an early Series edge.

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"It's definitely the biggest hit that I've gotten in my career," Craig said. "It's just a fun experience. I can't really explain it."

The Cardinals did the explaining for him, citing a player whose bat carried him to the Major Leagues last season, whose defensive limitations and lack of experience have since kept him confined to a bench role, and whose adaptability has now led to this.

As a rookie one year ago, Craig struggled in his first taste of the Majors, playing off the bench for the first time in his life. He had done nothing but hit in high school in Southern California, nothing but hit at the University of California, nothing but hit throughout the Minor Leagues. As a result, he had done nothing but play nearly every day, with no real knowledge of how to do the opposite.

In seven at-bats as a pinch-hitter last season, Craig mustered merely one hit. And yet he learned, leaning on then-teammates Aaron Miles and Randy Winn to teach him the finer points of pinch-hitting. Like, for example, how to prepare in the middle innings of a frigid game against one of the hardest-throwing pitchers in Major League Baseball.

A year later, given 22 regular-season pinch-hit at-bats, Craig recorded seven hits, including a home run and a double. His .318 average in those situations ranked 10th among all players with at least 20 pinch-hit at-bats. His .500 slugging percentage ranked fifth.

The samples are small, but such is the life of a pinch-hitter. The good ones make a career out of small sample sizes, taking advantage of odds stacked against them.

Take Wednesday, for example.

"Cold-weather game, sitting on the bench, World Series, Ogando -- it's not a very good situation," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "But he's got a history in our system. That's why we like him so much. He's got a history of taking great at-bats."

The not-a-very-good-situation aspects of the at-bat were what made the Rangers confident in inverse proportion. They knew that Ogando had a decent chance to overpower the right-handed-hitting Craig with fastballs, which is precisely what Ogando attempted to do.

As Texas manager Ron Washington put it, "In the end, you have to give Craig credit. He beat him."

In doing so, Craig recorded the first go-ahead RBI by a pinch-hitter in a World Series game since Wade Boggs came off the bench to draw a bases-loaded walk for the Yankees in 1996. No one had smacked a game-winning RBI pinch-hit since Ed Sprague did so for the Blue Jays in '92.

In general, it is not a situation that favors the hitter. And yet to hear the Cards discuss it afterward, it seemed as if the opposite might be true.

"That's what we expect out of Craig," third baseman David Freese said. "It's cool to see him produce on a national stage, because a lot of people don't understand that Allen Craig should be in about every starting lineup in this league."

Added outfielder Lance Berkman: "It's a luxury to have a guy that could hit probably fourth in most teams' lineups sitting over there waiting for his opportunity."

That opportunity has only just begun. Homering in his only start against the Brewers in the National League Championship Series last week, Craig is due to see significant playing time once the designated-hitter rule comes into effect for World Series Games 3 through 5 in Arlington. Normally a disadvantage for NL teams, the DH will give the Cardinals a perfect avenue to utilize Craig.

Another perfect avenue, that is -- La Russa has already found one ideal use for him in St. Louis.

"I've gotten big hits throughout the year for this team," Craig said. "I was looking for that opportunity to get in the box and hopefully change the game in a positive way for us. I was just glad I got it."

Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDicomo. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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