Craig's rough season bottoms out

NEW YORK -- Anyone even remotely familiar with the outlines of Allen Craig’s career knows that the guy wearing that name on the back of his Red Sox uniform bears scant resemblance to the player who helped take the St. Louis Cardinals to two World Series in the span of three years.

Craig struck out in all four of his at-bats in Wednesday night’s 5-1 loss to the New York Yankees. That had never happened to him in a nine-inning game in the big leagues. The only other time he struck out four times was in a 12-inning game in San Francisco in early April, three years ago.

The whole night Craig saw nothing but sinkers, splitters and sliders from Yankees veteran Hiroki Kuroda, and then in the ninth faced closer David Robertson, who put him away with three straight cutters. That does not make for an easy night for any hitter, especially when Craig had faced both pitchers just once each in his career, for a total of three at-bats.

But this is about more than one bad night for Craig, who came to the Sox in the John Lackey trade but in 10 games with Boston is batting just .111 (4-for-36) with 15 strikeouts, which means he’s striking out 41.7 percent of the time. All four times Tuesday he struck out swinging, and was particularly susceptible to pitches down and off the plate.

That doesn’t square with the player who was one of the most productive hitters in baseball over a three-year span in St. Louis, first as a part-timer in 2011, then as a middle-of-the-order force in the Cardinals’ lineup. From 2011 to 2013, Craig batted a cumulative .407 with runners in scoring position, and in each of the last two seasons, as noted by Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, was the only player in the majors to bat .400 or better with RISP.

But that was before the serious injury to his left foot that knocked Craig out of the 2013 season’s last month and left him hobbled in the World Series. And while he elected not to have surgery for what is known as a Lisfranc injury, which occurs in a midfoot joint complex of ligaments that connects the bones of the toes to the heel and is crucial for stabilization, running and jumping, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the injury has had a profound effect on his performance.

Craig was not inclined to acknowledge as much, especially to a reporter he barely knows, on a night he’d struck out four times, lest it be construed as making an excuse.

“It’s been a very long, tough year’’ is all he would say, and when asked how much of a factor the foot has been, Craig replied, “That’s tough to answer.’’

He also flatly rejected the suggestion that sporadic playing time has affected his performance since he came to the Sox, and downplayed the idea that he was pressing in order to make a good first impression on his new teammates.

Thursday will be a year to the day since Craig originally was injured in Cincinnati, when he turned awkwardly to avoid an umpire as he retreated to first base. The torque ruptured the ligaments in the middle of his foot. The Cardinals placed his foot in a walking boot, took the boot off a week or so later, then immediately put it back on after he was seen by a specialist.

Craig played against the Red Sox in the World Series, and despite the long layoff batted .375 (6-for-16), but with just one extra-base hit, and made his greatest impact when he fell over Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks while attempting to score the winning run in Game 3 and was awarded the plate on an obstruction call.

The Cardinals, who had signed Craig to a team-friendly, five-year, $31 million contract after the 2012 season, anticipated a full recovery this season. Instead, Craig struggled mightily, posting a slash line of .237/.291/.346/.638 and just 7 home runs in 368 at-bats.

With gifted rookie Oscar Taveras pushing for playing time, the Cardinals were willing to part with Craig in the Lackey deal, and in Craig’s first game with the Sox, the foot factored in immediately. He struck the bag with an off-balance step and immediately went on the disabled list.

A tough year, indeed. If the foot is still bothering him, the simple act of walking can be painful. Planting your front foot in the batter’s box will hurt even more. And there’s the possibility that Craig altered his mechanics to protect his foot, which has impacted his swing.

“He’s looking to establish some rhythm and consistency,’’ Farrell said Tuesday night.

But a couple of weeks ago, Farrell also acknowledged that surgery may be in the offing.

"The injury he had last year was something that was given rest and recovery, rather than repair," Farrell said. "I guess it's debatable whether a repair was needed or recommended, but they chose the conservative path.

"Does the previous injury still give some instability? That's again debatable."

At the moment, it looks like a pretty one-sided debate.