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The Strike Zone

Allen Craig and the St. Louis Cardinals are in a make-or-break stretch

For those who still believe in clutch hitting, Allen Craig struck again with a grand slam against the Reds. [Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images] For those who still believe in clutch hitting, Allen Craig struck again with a grand slam against the Reds. [Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images]

St. Louis Cardinals fans better get used to seeing a lot of Jay Bruce, Andrew McCutchen, Aroldis Chapman and Francisco Liriano in the next two weeks.

For the Cardinals, Monday night's game against Cincinnati was the first in a 13-game stretch exclusively against the Reds and Pirates. St. Louis has a three-game homestand against the Reds, an off day, then 10 consecutive games against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, culminating in a three-game home series with the Pirates on Sept. 6-8. It's a stretch that will determine whether the Cardinals, currently alone in first place in the NL Central by half-a-game after Monday's 8-6 win over the Reds, take home a division crown for the first time since 2009, or are forced into a multi-team scrap for the wild card.

Against Cincinnati, St. Louis has had a relatively easy time this season. Monday's win improved the Cardinals' record versus the Reds to 9-4, and St. Louis hasn't lost a series to Cincinnati all year. It looked Monday as if the Reds had finally figured something out about their division rivals, jumping to a quick 4-0 lead in the first two innings thanks to two two-run triples from Zack Cozart and Todd Frazier. But St. Louis starter Tyler Lyons was able to settle down from there, retiring the next 10 hitters in a row, and a three-run home run from Matt Holliday in the third inning made it a game again.

The winning blow came from the likeliest source in the Cardinals' lineup: Allen Craig. The Cal product continued to build on his MVP-caliber season, smashing the first grand slam of his career off Cincinnati reliever J.J. Hoover in the seventh inning to give St. Louis an 8-5 lead. All told, Craig finished 3-for-4 with the homer, as well as a double and a single, to improve his season line to .317/.376/.465. Even more impressive is Craig's performance with runners on: Monday's homer was his 56th hit in 124 at-bats with runners in scoring position, a .451 mark. That's the third highest batting average with runners in scoring position of all time, minimum 100 plate appearances. Here's the top-10 in that category, courtesy Baseball-Reference's Play Index:

.469 - George Brett, 1980

.459 - Tony Gwynn, 1997

.451 - Allen Craig, 2013

.448 - Freddie Freeman, 2013

.445 - Ichiro Suzuki, 2001

.444 - Mickey Mantle, 1956

.444 - Paul Molitor, 1987

.442 - Ted Williams, 1948

.435 - Manny Ramirez, 2002

.429 - Magglio Ordonez, 2007

It's not just runners on for Craig, either; he's also hitting a gaudy .456 with runners in scoring position and two out, and .309 in close and late situations, according to Baseball-Reference.

Of course, Craig has plenty of opportunities as the cleanup hitter in St. Louis' lineup, behind Matt Carpenter (.384 OBP), Holliday (.376), and Carlos Beltran (.344), with Yadier Molina (.332/.372/.498) offering protection in the No. 5 spot. Those five hitters are the biggest reason behind St. Louis being the third-highest scoring team in the majors, behind only Detroit and Boston, as well as top-three in batting average and on-base percentage, and top-five in OPS+.

Against the Pirates, however, St. Louis hasn't found the winning formula. The Cardinals are just 5-8 versus Pittsburgh this season, though they did win their most recent series with the Pirates on Aug. 13-15. Pittsburgh in particular has hit St. Louis' top two of Adam Wainwright and Shelby Miller, tagging Wainwright for seven earned runs in 14 innings over two starts and Miller for eight runs—and four homers—in 17 2/3 innings over three starts. Those numbers aren't awful by any means, but relative to Wainwright and Miller's seasons to date, they're far from great.

If there's one weakness the Cardinals currently have, it's that rotation. Wainwright and Miller are as strong a 1-2 punch as any in baseball, but injuries to Jamie Garcia (out for the year after shoulder surgery in May) and Jake Westbrook (recently placed on the DL with a lower back strain) have sapped St. Louis of depth. Fill-in fourth starter Joe Kelly has been excellent since being shifted into the rotation on June 21, with a 2.06 ERA in 56 2/3 innings. But the rookie Lyons has been less reliable, with a 5.35 ERA in 38 2/3 innings as a starter, not counting Monday's start. The Cardinals have other rookie options available to them in the forms of Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez, but for now, St. Louis is using both top prospects out of the bullpen.

Whether St. Louis can find some veteran help via waivers isn't clear. The best option is the Nationals' Dan Haren, who boasts an unsightly 4.66 ERA in 139 innings so far this season, but has been lights out in August. In his last five starts, Haren has allowed just eight earned runs over 33 innings—a 2.18 ERA—with 26 strikeouts and only five walks. Most importantly, Haren has surrendered only four homers in those 33 innings, a far cry from his pre-August mark of 21 homers in 105 innings. Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo has said he will listen to trade offers for Haren, but reportedly wants a good-sized package of prospects in return. With the No. 1 minor-league system in baseball, the Cardinals definitely have the means to acquire Haren, but whether they want to part with young players in exchange for a one-month rental remains to be seen.

Barring an acquisition of Haren or another veteran, it'll be up to Wainwright and Miller to carry the team down the stretch. But that stretch run may be for naught if St. Louis can't take care of the most important stretch of its season.
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