Allen Craig's gutsy play looms large

ST. LOUIS -- The St. Louis Cardinals might be suffering from inconsistent pitching and a lack of clutch hitting in the World Series, but they're up to their cap brims in inspirational forces. First, Carlos Beltran bruised a rib banging into the Fenway Park wall, only to return the next day and help lead St. Louis to a win. Now, the Cardinals are uplifted by the sight of Allen Craig, rusty from lack of use and playing on a bum foot, contributing a pivotal hit against Koji Uehara and emerging from a two-car pileup at third base to score the winning run.

What's next? David Eckstein coming out of retirement and hurtling into the stands to catch a pop fly?

Less than an hour after Craig exercised his specialty and then put himself in peril with a madcap dash around the bases to give St. Louis a 5-4 win over Boston in Game 3 of the World Series, his teammates tried to put his contribution in perspective. Second baseman Matt Carpenter, who was born in 1985, conjured an event that took place three years later on a magical night in Los Angeles.

"That was like a Kirk Gibson-esque deal out there tonight," Carpenter said of Craig's evening. "He's banged up, and he's not even close to 100 percent, and then to come out and do that? To give 100 percent effort when he could have taken it easy and protected his body? He was in a lot of pain, man, but that's what the postseason is all about. He went all out, and we won the game."

Hyperbole? Perhaps. But it's easy for ballplayers to get giddy when they're two wins away from drowning each other in Champagne.

Short-term, we have another game-day injury vigil to monitor from the St. Louis clubhouse. Craig was in such obvious discomfort after colliding with Boston third baseman Will Middlebrooks and sprinting home with the winning run, his teammates knew enough to give him his space during the post-game celebration. Will Craig be available for another round of pinch-hitting duty when Clay Buchholz and Lance Lynn square off in Game 4 on Sunday night? The only certainty is that he'll give it his best shot.

"My foot's a little sore," Craig told a mob of reporters in the home clubhouse at Busch Stadium. "We're just going to see how it feels. I don't want to jump to any conclusions. That's the first time I had to run full speed in a while, and there was a little obstacle course out there."

If the Cardinals do, indeed, take two more games and win their third World Championship in eight years, Craig's hero turn and the subsequent controversy might be regarded as the seminal moment of the Series. But this game was also a statement about the Cardinals, the team mentality they cultivate and all the little things they do that make them one of baseball's most consistent and routinely-admired franchises.

The Cardinals live by certain mantras that sustain them through good times and bad. One is the value of developing players from within, and it's evident in the presence of the 17 players on the 2013 World Series roster who were drafted, signed and developed by the organization.

Another tenet of St. Louis baseball is the belief that every man on the roster is going to get a chance to make a difference. More often than not, players arrive from Triple-A Memphis as finished products, with a firm grasp of the fundamentals, an abundance of poise, and a willingness to embrace the moment.

With the middle three games of the Series taking place under National League rules, it stands to reason that the benches might play a more important role for both Boston and St. Louis. And it was only fitting that two homegrown Cardinals -- Craig and rookie second baseman Kolten Wong -- came off the bench and made major contributions in the late innings.

Craig, a relative late-bloomer at 29, has established himself as a money run producer over the past two seasons. He collected 97 RBIs in 508 regular-season at-bats in 2013, and hit a mind-boggling .454 with runners in scoring position. But he suffered a Lisfranc injury in his left foot in early September and missed the final month of the regular season. Craig also sat out the Division Series against Pittsburgh and the National League Championship Series against Los Angeles, but his teammates cooperated by winning enough games to give him time to heal and work his way back onto the roster.

Each day, Craig came to the park in disabled list purgatory and vowed to do anything and everything within his power to make a difference. His teammates watched him work through the boredom and the frustration, and their respect for him grew exponentially.

"It shows that he cares about this," Beltran said. "Even though he was out, he found a way to get back. It's about having pride in what you do, and Allen Craig just shows that.

"During the time he was out rehabbing and spending time in the weight room and the training room, we had several conversations. We would talk about his injury and how he was developing, and he said, 'Man, if we get to the World Series, my goal is to just be available.' You have to give him credit. He's really put in the time to be in the position he's in."

Before the World Series began, Craig knew that he would probably be limited to cameo appearances during the Busch Stadium leg of the proceedings. Although Craig logged seven at-bats as a designated hitter in Boston, he's not ready to play first base. So Matt Adams mans the position in Games 3, 4 and 5, and Craig has to adapt to a different role as a pinch-hitter. During Saturday's game, he swung the bat against soft tosses in an indoor cage, then staked out a seat in the dugout around the fifth inning and tried to look ahead to the moment in the game when he might be used.

It finally arrived in the bottom of the ninth. After Yadier Molina produced a one-out single against Brandon Workman, Boston manager John Farrell summoned Uehara, whose utter dominance this season was reflected in a 1.09 ERA, a 0.57 WHIP and a 101-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He's no treat for any hitter, but especially daunting for a guy coming off the bench cold.

So naturally, Craig took a rip at the first pitch from Uehara -- an 88-mph fastball -- and drove it into the left-field corner for a double. A few chaotic moments later, he was grimacing with pain and exhilaration while his teammates stormed him from the dugout.

"Hitters hit, man"' Carpenter said. "He's one of those guys who can get in the box and put together a good at-bat when he wakes up out of bed. We knew when we got him on the roster he would find a way to do something to help us. Today was that day."

It wasn't all Craig, obviously. Carpenter, Matt Holliday, Adams and Molina combined for nine hits. Starting pitcher Joe Kelly gave the Cardinals 5 1/3 effective innings, and Trevor Rosenthal blew away the Red Sox in the ninth after failing to work out of a bases-loaded mess he had been handed in the eighth.

And then there was Wong, St. Louis' top pick in the 2011 draft and an August call-up from Memphis. He made a wonderful defensive play on Daniel Nava at second base in the eighth, and singled and stole a base in the bottom of the inning. Someone needs to inform these St. Louis kids that it's October and they're supposed to be too uptight to perform at the optimal level.

"That's the beauty of this clubhouse and this team," Wong said. "They have so much confidence in the young players. They're going to put you in situations, and they want to see you succeed and see how you can do under pressure. This was one of those situations where guys had to step up."

Even the guy who can barely walk -- much less run -- found a way to put his best foot forward in Game 3. The Cardinals have relied on talent, togetherness and a high pain threshold to take a 2-1 lead over Boston. They'll find out soon if those attributes are enough to win them a World Series.