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Lyle Spencer

Cards redefining what it means to be clutch

Cards redefining what it means to be clutch

Cards redefining what it means to be clutch

ANAHEIM -- The Cardinals are clutch. Scholars stand on alert, armed with mounds of numbers to disprove the existence of clutch hitting, but what St. Louis is doing this season with the bats in game-turning situations is potentially historic.

Through 82 games, the team is hitting an astonishing .333 with runners in scoring position. That exceeds, by a substantial margin, what any club has done over the past 40 years.

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The 2007 Tigers and 1996 Rockies share the standard, each hitting .311 with runners at second and/or third. Going back to the 1975 Red Sox, who hit .308, just 13 teams have reached .300 with runners in scoring position.

The Pirates have surged past the Cards in the National League Central, the Redbirds owning the league's second-best record. But the numbers confuse the issue.

St. Louis is significantly better than Pittsburgh offensively (81 more runs scored) and defensively (23 fewer errors) while ranking third in the NL in ERA (3.33), the one category led by the Pirates (3.11).

The Cards' rotation, featuring Adam Wainwright, is top shelf. Their bullpen has been efficient after its early struggles. And when it comes to timely hitting, nobody is close to the St. Louis wrecking crew -- in spite of a 1-for-16 slide culminating in Tuesday night's 5-1 loss to the streaking Angels.

Headlining the St. Louis hit parade are Allen Craig and Carlos Beltran. Craig leads the Majors with his .463 average with runners in scoring position, followed by Miguel Cabrera's .457 and Beltran's .456.

Cards catcher Yadier Molina comes in at .385. Matt Carpenter (.357) and Matt Holliday (.354) give manager Mike Matheny five hitters exceeding .350 with runners in scoring position.

"We have a lot of guys who have pride in coming through with guys in scoring position, like Allen Craig, Yadi Molina," Beltran said. "They want to get those RBIs. We've been doing a great job with guys in scoring position -- the whole team."

Pete Kozma, at .329, is sixth among the Cards. Erick Aybar (.333) and Mike Trout (.325) lead the Angels with men in scoring position. Albert Pujols, facing for the first time Tuesday night the team he led for 11 seasons, is hitting .291 in RISP situations, down from .334 in his solid-gold career.

Beltran, still one of the game's purest talents at 36, leads the Cards in homers (19) and slugging percentage (.549) and is right behind Craig in RBIs (50). Craig has 63 RBIs with only nine homers.

Emerging as a force with the 2011 World Series champions after his debut in 2010, Craig -- a product of Temecula (Calif.) Chaparral High School and the University of California at Berkeley -- is a .386 career hitter in 345 plate appearances 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," Craig 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."

Like Craig, Beltran lights up with RBIs waiting to be racked up. His lifetime line with RISP is .306/.393/.532, compared to .283/.359/.498 overall.

"I've always liked to hit when I've got guys in front of me," Beltran said. "I've got a lot of confidence I'll do the job and help the team. I enjoy those moments."

Beltran is slugging .702 with men in scoring position, to go with his .456 average this season.

One of the stories of the season is Molina's rise into contention for the NL batting title, taken last year by the Giants' Buster Posey. The league's Most Valuable Player Award went to Posey, and there are those who feel Molina is the leading candidate to succeed Posey as the NL MVP Award winner.

"He's having a phenomenal year -- not only behind the plate, but offensively," Beltran said. "Yadi's so valuable to the team the way he builds confidence in the pitchers, especially the young guys. They know they're in good hands with him.

"What he's doing with the bat is amazing."

Molina has delivered in 30 of 78 at-bats with runners in scoring position.

"I've always trusted myself, worked hard," Molina said when asked about his offensive surge. "Right now, I'm doing that."

Molina grinned when it was pointed out that his .347 batting average puts him exactly 100 points higher than Pujols, his mentor.

"This is baseball," Molina said. "Anything can happen."

The Cards have been consistently among the Majors' best in delivering with men in scoring position. They were ninth last year, hitting .264, with American League champion Detroit leading the way at .286. During the 2011 magic carpet ride to the championship, the Cards led the Majors with their .290 mark. They were fifth in 2010, at .270.

The Angels began this season in a deep funk offensively, but a surge has them 10th in the Majors at .267 with men in scoring position.

"I feel we're much more comfortable now," manager Mike Scioscia said. "It is contagious. There's no doubt that as you start to get that hit that gets a run in, it takes pressure off the guys behind you. You don't put so much on every swing. You can relax and just play baseball."

It is no coincidence that the Angels' most recent trip to the postseason in 2009 came as they led the Majors in hitting with runners in scoring position, at .297.

Pitching, defense and clutch hitting. It's the time-honored formula for success.

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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