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CBSSports.com National Columnist

Future Cardinals star Craig no longer an unknown


ST. LOUIS -- One of these days, the world will know Allen Craig's name. Maybe the world knows his name already, but I doubt it. What I think is: Allen Craig is a household name only to folks in St. Louis and to hardcore baseball fans elsewhere. To everyone else? He's nobody.

Or he was until Wednesday night.

Which was just a glimpse, a taste, of the future.

Because in the future, Allen Craig will be -- on a regular basis, year after year -- what he was Wednesday in Game 1 of the 2011 World Series, when he was a star. The star.

Allen Craig was that good, and he is that good, and someday he will get the chance to be that good on a regular basis. Maybe even next year, should Albert Pujols do the unthinkable and leave St. Louis as a free agent, opening up 500 at-bats at first base, a position Allen Craig can play. He also can play the outfield, but the leather on his hand isn't the reason Craig was on Wednesday -- and will be for years to come -- a star.

He'll be a star because of his bat.

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Craig broke a 2-2 tie in the sixth inning of Game 1, coming off the bench on a cold night to face the filthiest pitcher of the 2011 postseason -- and beating that pitcher, Rangers right-hander Alexi Ogando, with a two-out single. The hit scored David Freese from third, the final run of a 3-2 victory for the Cardinals.

Craig's pinch-hit single would have gone for extra bases, scoring Nick Punto from first, had Rangers right fielder Nelson Cruz not caught a lucky break and stopped the ball inadvertently with his foot. Cruz tried for a sliding catch on the sinking liner toward the corner, but his glove didn't get within a foot of the ball. Instead of bouncing to the wall, the ball hit Cruz's foot and stayed within an arm's length. That kept Punto at third and Craig at first.

Not that it mattered, in hindsight. The Cardinals bullpen recorded three scoreless innings, retiring the final eight batters, to close out the victory.

Afterward, La Russa was asked about Craig's at-bat. He smiled, because he knew he had put Craig in a tough spot. Ogando would have been MVP of the American League Championship Series were it not for Cruz, whose bat went ballistic. On the mound, Ogando was doing much the same -- winning two games and adding to a postseason in which he has allowed only four hits in 10 1/3 innings, striking out 12, producing an ERA of 0.87 and limiting playoff opponents to a .114 batting average.

Ogando has been as nasty as the weather on this cold and windy night, and La Russa knows it. Asked about that at-bat, La Russa started ticking off all the problems with it.

"Cold game, sitting on the bench, World Series, Ogando? I mean, that's not a very good situation," La Russa said. "But [Craig's] got a history in our system. He's got a history of taking great at-bats -- that's why we like him -- especially with runners in scoring position. So he should have a really good career."

No question about it. Craig is 27, so maybe he seems like a guy whose time will never come, but he didn't turn pro until he was 22, and after his first season of pro ball, he hit .300 or better in the next four years in the minors. Then he hit .315 this season in spot duty, putting up numbers almost identical to those of star slugger Matt Holliday.

In 446 at-bats, Holliday hit .296 with 22 home runs and 75 RBI, with an OPS of .912. Craig? He had 200 at-bats, producing that .315 average, 11 home runs and 40 RBI, with an OPS of .917.

Both are right-handed hitters. Both play left field.

Now you see why Craig hasn't played much in two years? It's not because he can't hit. It's because he can't beat out Matt Holliday, but his time is coming. Everyone knows that. The Cardinals know they can't sit on him any longer. Cardinals batting coach Mark McGwire has been quoted this week saying he's looking forward to the middle three World Series games in Texas, when the Cardinals will be able to add a bat -- Craig's bat -- to the lineup.

And the truth is, St. Louis might be better in the American League city than the AL team itself. Look at each team's extra bat, people. The Rangers will add a guy, Mitch Moreland or Yorvit Torrealba, who lugs an OPS in the low .700s to the bottom of the order. The Cardinals will add Allen Craig, a guy whose OPS was better than everyone in the Rangers' starting lineup -- better than Josh Hamilton (.882), better than Michael Young (.854), better than all of them -- and a guy who will bat somewhere in the meat of the order. Or should.

"Such a luxury," Cardinals right fielder Lance Berkman said of Craig. "We got a guy who probably can hit fourth on most teams, just sitting over there waiting on his opportunity."

He'll get it a lot more often next season. And he'll get it every game that this World Series stays in Texas. And Craig got it Wednesday night, doing with it what he has done all season.

That's why Rangers manager Ron Washington didn't feel so bad about this defeat. Losing to Allen Craig? No shame in that.

"I think in the end you have to give Craig credit," Washington said. "He beat [Ogando]. We certainly didn't lose tonight. We got beat."

By a star.

A star today. And a bigger star tomorrow.

Gregg Doyel is a columnist for CBSSports.com. He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. He was 4-0 (3 KO's!) as an amateur boxer, and volunteers for the ALS Association. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.

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