Scuffling Holliday has yet to rise to occasion

Scuffling Holliday has yet to rise to occasion

ST. LOUIS -- No one expects to be able to say this for long, but the Brewers actually relished facing Cardinals slugger Matt Holliday in Wednesday night's Game 3 of the National League Championship Series.

Holliday's offensive struggles were the major yeah, but ... in the Cards' 4-3 victory that gave them a 2-1 series lead.

During normal times, Holliday is part of the reason No. 3 hitter Albert Pujols is able to make his presence felt as arguably the best hitter of his era. But with Holliday limited by a inflamed tendon by his right middle finger that kept him out of the starting lineup in the first three games of the NL Division Series, Milwaukee hid from Pujols.

In both the fourth and sixth innings, Brewers manager Ron Roenicke walked Pujols intentionally with two outs to face Holliday. In the fourth, Milwaukee starter Yovani Gallardo struck out Holliday on six pitches. With the bases loaded in the sixth, LaTroy Hawkins, a teammate of Holliday's with the 2007 NL champion Rockies, fanned him on six pitches.

Each time, opposing pitchers worked him low in the zone before putting him away with fastballs above his hands. When the components of Holliday's swing -- including the signature leg kick -- are operating just right, he often crushes those high fastballs. He also generally has the strength to put a charge into sliders and split-finger pitches that other hitters roll along the infield grass.

With Pujols blistering Brewers pitching to the tune of 7-for-11 with a home run, four doubles and six RBIs, facing Holliday -- who is 3-for-10 with two RBIs, but is clearly not himself -- seems like a sound strategy. Holliday hit .296 with 22 home runs and 75 RBIs in 124 regular-season games, which indicates he finds his way out of slumps. But he has far less time to do so in a short series.

Lance Berkman, who can easily move into the cleanup spot and push Holliday to fifth -- which was the Game 1 strategy -- said Milwaukee could end up looking bad if Holliday finds his swing.

"I have a hard time walking anybody to get to Matt Holliday," Berkman said. "He's won a batting title. He's been an LCS MVP [with Colorado in 2007]. You might get him a couple of times, but you'd better be careful. If they keep doing it, he's going to absolutely make them pay."

The question becomes whether Cardinals manager Tony La Russa will bank on Holliday. He could go back to the strategy of hitting Berkman fourth. Or he could make a bigger move.

Before Wednesday's game, La Russa was asked how he weighs Holliday against Allen Craig, who has nowhere near Holliday's track record. Craig went 1-for-10 in the NLDS against the Phillies, mostly in Holliday's absence, but drew four walks and scored three times. Craig also singled as a pinch-hitter in the sixth inning Wednesday night to improve to 1-for-2 in this series.

Craig, in his second Major League season, hit .315 with 11 home runs and 40 RBIs in 75 games during the regular season.

"Just the fact that you're asking that question is a heck of a compliment to what Allen did this year and what he showed last year," La Russa said before Wednesday's game. "If you're talking about Holliday, you're talking about one of the best hitters in either league. And if he's healthy, Craig has got a lot of earning to be at the same level."

Whether its pain or rust, whatever ails Holliday is bad enough for Roenicke to overcome his aversion to the intentional pass.

"Where it makes sense, then we'll try to put [Pujols] on," Roenicke said. "He's scary when he's hitting everything, and we make good pitches and he's still hitting them. He's done a lot of damage against us."

Now Holliday must overcome what ails him to do some damage, himself.

Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.