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Cards best in clutch, but they're not alone

St. Louis led by far while Red Sox, Tigers also flourished with men in scoring position

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Cards best in clutch, but they're not alone play video for Cards best in clutch, but they're not alone

The St. Louis Cardinals and their faithful can relate to the heartache of Peyton Manning and Broncos fans in the wake of Denver's Super Bowl demise at the hands of Seattle's Seahawks.

Like Manning and Co., the 2013 Redbirds watched a season of historic offensive production end in pain and frustration on the big stage.

After hitting an astonishing .330 with runners in scoring position during the regular season, the Cards' magic expired when they were shut down in the World Series by Boston's champion Red Sox.

In 42 at-bats with men on second and/or third, St. Louis' lineup managed just eight singles and a double for a .214 average. The Red Sox were 11-for-44 (.250) with four doubles and a homer with men in scoring position.

Not that it's any consolation, but that is a decidedly small sample size in relation to the 162-game schedule that separates the contenders from the dreamers.

In deference to the skeptical analytical community and its disdain of the C-word, all references to clutch performance will be set aside here. We'll simply identify the 2013 Cards, without fear of contradiction, as an extraordinary band of opportunists, unmatched over a four-decade span in their ability to deliver when opposing pitchers are backed into a corner.

Their .330 team batting average in scoring situations was the highest in the Majors by far in the designated-hitter era, eclipsing the .311 assembled by the 1996 Colorado Rockies and 2007 Detroit Tigers.

"Sabermetricians might [disagree]," Cards manager Mike Matheny said, "but I think there are certain guys who perform in those situations."

With .402 on-base and .463 slugging percentages, St. Louis completed a rare triple crown of production with men in scoring position. While they fell narrowly shy in their 2011 World Series title run, they led the Major Leagues in average (.290) and OBP (.378) but getting edged by the Yankees (.455 to .454) in slugging under such circumstanaces.

With Magglio Ordonez leading the way, the 2007 Tigers (.311/.383/.478) made it a clean sweep, but the '96 Rockies, loving the altitude in Denver, were fourth in OBP while prevailing in batting average and slugging.

In the context of their era, the 1975 Boston Red Sox came closest to matching the 2013 Cards. The New England power company fueled by Fred Lynn and Jim Rice was the Majors' best by a substantial margin with a .308/.382/.471 line with runners in scoring position.

Boston was the only team to finish at .300 or better from 1974-93. The 1977 Cards and 1984 Red Sox each came in at .299. Since 1994, when the Indians hit .303, 13 clubs have hit .300 or higher with men in scoring position, underscoring the era's offensive nature.

It is instructive to note that the teams falling right behind the Cards as opportunists in 2013 were the Tigers and Red Sox. They finished second and third, respectively, in average and slugging with men in scoring position. It clearly pays to deliver under pressure, given that these were three of the last four teams standing.

Only the Dodgers, rounding out the League Championship Series field, were relatively unproductive in such situations. Their line of .252/.330/.367 with runners in scoring position left them in the lower half of the Majors. Hanley Ramirez (.368) and Adrian Gonzalez (.323) came through, but they didn't get enough help.

Manager Don Mattingly's crew actually fared better in the postseason (.259/.347/.420) with opportunity knocking but couldn't get past St. Louis in the NLCS.

All the thunder and lightning that carried the Cards to the NL Central title was blunted by superior pitching in the postseason. The absence of their main opportunist in October, injured Allen Craig, was a factor.

Craig has led the Majors in average with men in scoring position two years running, suggesting it is no fluke. His .454 average in 2013 was even better than his .400 mark in 2013. He made his breakthrough with the 2011 champion Cards, hitting .316 and slugging .667 with men in scoring position.

"I feel like I've always had a good approach with runners in scoring position, even in the Minor Leagues," said Craig, a .394 career hitter who has slugged .636 with men in scoring position. "Definitely, doing it on the biggest stage, in the playoffs and [2011] 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."

As great as Craig was in 2013, he had a lot of company in St. Louis. Five of the nine leading hitters in the Majors with men in scoring position were Cardinals.

Matt Holliday (.390) was fourth and Matt Carpenter (.388) fifth, with Carlos Beltran (.374) and Yadier Molina (.373) eighth and ninth. Pete Kozma (.322) and Jon Jay (.297) also performed beyond their overall averages with runners waiting to be delivered.

Beltran has taken his skills to the Yankees, but the Cardinals have added a new weapon in free-agent shortstop Jhonny Peralta. He was 14th in the Majors with his .344 average with men in scoring position.

The Braves' Freddie Freeman hit .443 with an MLB-best .541 OBP with men in scoring position. Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers' two-time AL Most Valuable Player and three-time batting champion, led in slugging with runners in scoring position at .782, edging the Orioles' Chris Davis (.759) and Freeman (.695). Rounding out the top five were Paul Goldschmidt of the D-backs (.669) and Craig (.638).

Cabrera has been an opportunist his entire career, hitting .335 with men in scoring position compared to a .321 overall average. Miggy's .389 mark in 2011 with men in scoring position was surpassed only by teammate Victor Martinez's .394 -- a good omen for Tigers fans. Acquired at the considerable cost of Prince Fielder, Ian Kinsler has been slightly better (.285 to .284) than Prince but with less power, Fielder slugging .481, Kinsler .453.

The Royals got more than stellar defense from their young receiver, Salvador Perez. He was sixth in the Majors at .377 with men in scoring position, right ahead of the Indians' Michael Brantley (.375). Mike Trout (.324/.457/.537) was a one-man gang for the disappointing Angels with men in scoring position. Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton are planning to lend the phenom supporting hands this year.

When the Angels have flourished, they've been a rally team, putting together big innings. Manager Mike Scioscia alludes to a dynamic at work with opportunistic teams.

"It is contagious," Scioscia said. "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."

Robinson Cano -- a .357 hitter in 2013 with men in scoring position -- brings that much needed game-breaking threat to the Mariners. Pablo Sandoval, the Giants' 2011 World Series MVP, continued to thrive when it counted with a .354 average with runners in his field of vision.

Jonny Gomes (.346) led the Red Sox, who also got opportunistic hitting from World Series MVP David Ortiz and Shane Victorino (.315 each), Dustin Pedroia (.312) and Daniel Nava (.306). Mike Napoli led the club with 73 RBIs with men in scoring position, one more than Ortiz and Pedroia. Victorino was 9-for-18 with 11 RBIs to carry the Sox through the postseason.

Jacoby Ellsbury, the Yankees' new leadoff man, lights up with men in scoring position. The center fielder matched teammate Victorino's .500 average in the 2013 postseason with six hits and six RBIs after hitting .304 in those situations during the regular season. New teammate Brett Gardner hit .356 with men in scoring position.

Mix in Beltran -- a .529 career slugger with men in scoring position -- and new catcher Brian McCann (.491), and there should be a hearty menu at Yankee Stadium that could satisfy the customers despite Cano's exit.

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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