A healthy Allen Craig key to St. Louis Cardinals playoff hopes

With Albert Pujols in California with the Angels and Lance Berkman on the disabled list with more knee problems, the St. Louis Cardinals have to get consistent production from Allen Craig during the final six weeks of the season if they want a shot at a postseason berth.

Craig has played remarkably when he’s been in the lineup. He’s hitting .294 with 17 homeruns and 59 RBIs. Unfortunately, he’s played in just 71 of the Cardinals’ 113 games heading into play Saturday.

He started the year on the disabled list while recovering from knee surgery, but he also missed the second half of May with more leg problems and he missed Wednesday’s 15-0 loss to the San Francisco Giants with chest problems.

The Cardinals have survived while Craig was absent with Matt Carpenter and Matt Adams sharing time at first base early in the season, but the Cardinals cannot afford for Craig to be out of the lineup the rest of the season.

Berkman’s return is unlikely at best, Carpenter is a good bench player but nothing more and Adams still needs some time in the minors to develop into a major league player. The Cardinals have long had a stable force at first base with Pujols, and they desperately need stability at that position the rest of the season.

The Cardinals sat six games behind the Cincinnati Reds and 2.5 games behind the Pittsburgh Pirates heading into play Saturday.

This year’s Cardinals likely won’t need a repeat of the 2011 team that finished the season on a 23-9 record to reach the playoffs, but they can no longer split series with the likes of the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants.

It will take just one two-week stretch of fantastic baseball and the Cardinals will be in a playoff spot, but they will need production from the right side of the infield to get on a roll.

The combination of Skip Schumaker and Daniel Descalso at second base isn’t going to produce any spectacular numbers the rest of the season, but that doesn’t mean Craig has to be Superman either.

Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran and David Freese will have to do the heavy lifting, but Craig will have to hit consistently at the plate. Sure, Craig good hit .500 for a week and go 0-for the next week. His numbers would look fine, but the Cardinals need him to hit well consistently, not have awesome and horrible stretches.

Craig had hit 8-28 in August before a recent 1-7 performance since his return from the chest injury, and the Cardinals will need more than a .264 batting average the rest of the season.

Hopefully, the time Craig missed early in the season will allow him to be fresh during the stretch run. The regular season has reached the point when managers need to limit the days off and forget decisions made to keep guys fresh throughout the year. This is the payoff time for those early season decisions.

The Cardinals are still well within striking distance for a playoff spot, and even a chance to run down the Reds for the division title. But they will need players such as Craig to be in the lineup every day for this to be a fun race to the playoffs.

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