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MLB.com Columnist

Lyle Spencer

Craig continues to come up clutch for Cards

Craig continues to come up clutch for Cards

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Craig continues to come up clutch for Cards

MLB.com Columnist

Lyle Spencer

LOS ANGELES -- Yes, you can go home again. And if you're Allen Craig, you can end up having a blast on a four-day weekend, even if a few disappointments surfaced along the way.

"It's good to see family and friends," Craig said, "and it's really good to get out of here with a win."

The Cardinals survived a 12-inning test of wills against the Dodgers on Sunday, seizing a 5-2 verdict that returned to St. Louis the lead in the chase for the second National League Wild Card.

Craig finished a productive series with a major role in what manager Mike Matheny called "the most important game of the season." That changes on Tuesday when a three-game home series opens against the Astros.

With two on and one out in the first, facing right-hander Stephen Fife, Craig hooked an RBI double into the left-field corner. A wild pitch by Fife brought home a second run. The offense slumbered until the 12th when Jon Jay's two-out, two-strike double against John Ely -- the ninth of 10 Dodgers pitchers -- led to a three-run inning that included an RBI single by Craig.

The cleanup man and first baseman for the reigning World Series champions, Craig was 7-for-19 during the four-game series with a homer, double and six RBIs. His hitting streak reached 10, his average climbing to .308.

That it happened in front of Marie, his bride of 10 months, his parents and a slew of friends from southwestern Riverside County made it all the more enjoyable.

"I just like playing in Dodger Stadium," said Craig, who homered and singled, driving in all three of his team's runs, in Saturday night's dispiriting loss. "I think it's a good place to hit. I do see the ball well here. The backdrop is really good."

In seven career games at Dodger Stadium, Craig is 11-for-24 (.458) with two homers and nine RBIs.

Craig's uncommon ability to deliver in high-priority situations is becoming his calling card.

With his double and single on Sunday, Craig is batting an NL-best .404 in 109 at-bats this season with men in scoring position. His slugging percentage is .679.

An amateur psychologist might conclude that his stunning success last October, emerging as a force in manager Tony La Russa's attack, infused Craig with an inner belief that he can handle pressure.

"I think last year's postseason helped everyone," Matheny said. "Sabermetricians might [disagree], but I think there are certain guys who perform in those situations. [World Series MVP David] Freese and Craig have shown the ability to get the big RBI."

Craig carved a permanent niche in Cardinals lore during the thrilling ride to the championship. He hit all through the postseason -- his 1.013 OPS, built on a .622 slugging percentage, attests to that. But it was in the Fall Classic, with the whole world watching, where he did his best work.

The night Albert Pujols launched his three bombs in Game 3 at Texas, Craig delivered a fourth St. Louis home run. He was just warming up, it turned out.

In the Game 6 classic, Craig unloaded an eighth-inning shot against Derek Holland, helping fuel the comeback of comebacks. Then, in the grand finale, Craig's third-inning homer against Matt Harrison handed the Redbirds a lead they wouldn't surrender in a 6-2 Game 7 triumph.

Craig is clutch, undeniably. In 197 career at-bats, he's hitting .355 with runners in scoring position.

"I feel like I've always had a good approach with runners in scoring position, even in the Minor Leagues," he said. "Definitely, doing it on the biggest stage, in the playoffs and World Series, added to my confidence.

"That helped a lot of guys out. It's always something we can look back on and get some confidence from."

Craig takes his place among the most versatile players in the game. The start at first base was the 74th of his career. He has made 57 starts in right field, 26 in left, five in center, eight at second base and three at third.

"I played first here and there in the Minors," said Craig, who'd primarily been an outfielder, "but never consistently. I'm still learning little stuff I need to do. For the most part, things are going well. I'm getting more comfortable."

Craig, 28, was born down Interstate 5 from Dodger Stadium in Mission Viejo, Orange County, and raised off I-15 in Temecula. He has a built-in rooting section when he plays at Dodger Stadium and San Diego's Petco Park.

Following his smashing World Series triumph, he came home to an equally eventful offseason.

Craig married Marie LaMarca -- a fellow Temecula Chaparral High School grad whom he's known since 2002 -- two weeks after Game 7, on Nov. 12.

On Jan. 10, at the new City Hall complex in his Temecula hometown, he was honored with "Allen Craig Day."

Craig, who moved on to UC Berkeley from Temecula, was drafted by the Cardinals in the eighth round of the 2006 First-Year Player Draft.

It was one of the Redbirds' wisest decisions, a gift that keeps on giving -- notably under pressure.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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