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Anthony Castrovince

Missing calling Card: Big hit proving elusive

Missing calling Card: Big hit proving elusive play video for Missing calling Card: Big hit proving elusive

The Cardinals got the big hit in the 12th inning of their victory over the Cubs on Tuesday night.

They certainly weren't going to quibble with the fact that it was a walk-off hit by pitch.

But the big hit -- as in, actual hit -- has been strangely elusive for this Cardinals club in what has been, to date, a fitful 2014.

Proving the sabermetric skeptics correct in the assumption that so-called "clutch" stats of the past are not predictive for the future is one thing. But the Cards' step back in situational hitting has been sizable enough so far to sully them with a .500 record and a 5 1/2-game deficit in the National League Central, despite getting, on measure, some of the best pitching in the league.

The Cardinals have a deep and multifaceted lineup -- especially by NL standards -- and that's one of multiple reasons they're viewed as a legit World Series contender. Yet getting the most out of that lineup has been a struggle.

St. Louis has dropped from an historic .330/.402/.463 slash line with runners in scoring position last year to a pedestrian .239/.315/.342 line in 2014. With RISP and two outs, it's a .216 average after last year's ridiculous .305 mark. In a related development, the Cards are scoring the fifth-fewest runs per game (3.73) in the Majors.

"Quality at-bats is what you're after," hitting coach John Mabry said. "Keep throwing up quality at-bats and it will hopefully turn in your favor."

Carlos Beltran is gone, but there is enough quality here to count on a turnaround. The Cardinals won't repeat last year's historic clutch clout, but they're better than they've shown.

St. Louis has four guys at least slightly outperforming the average league OPS (and remember, in today's environment, that's a low bar) at their position -- catcher Yadier Molina (.785), first baseman Matt Adams (.763), shortstop Jhonny Peralta (.818) and left fielder Matt Holliday (.729).

The Cards can also claim, with some degree of certainty, that Matt Carpenter is better than the .256/.359/.314 slash line he's put up so far and that Allen Craig is far better than his .221/.278/.362 marks.

What has frustrated manager Mike Matheny at times this season has been a lack of execution -- not just in the stuff that sticks out in the box score, but in the fundamentals of moving guys into scoring position, extending innings.

"Execution," Matheny said. "The awareness is there. But we talk about urgency, and I think those reminders of how important it is and then what it creates when the guy gets that done -- an even bigger response when they get back to the dugout. I think all of us -- coaches, players -- just kind of increase our focus on it, because it's something we can do a better job of."

Soon, St. Louis hopes to get an upgrade in offense at second base from Kolten Wong, who, predictably, made the necessary adjustments in his Triple-A stay and is close to a callup.

Eventually, top prospect Oscar Taveras and his .867 OPS with Memphis will merit a look, as well, though his addition would complicate lineup construction for Matheny. Taveras is not likely to bump Craig out of right field, and there are questions about his usability in center field for a team that is already not elite on the defensive front. One possible solution would be to spell Adams -- whose struggles against lefties have continued in '14 -- against southpaws with Craig at first, but the left-handed Taveras would be in a matchup conundrum there as well.

Whatever the future holds, in the present, it's clear the Cardinals need more production from the middle of the order. They've gotten the eighth-lowest OPS (.653) and the third-fewest RBIs (13) out of the cleanup spot, which is most frequently inhabited by Adams and Craig.

Adams' left-on-left issues were predictable going into the year.

Craig's overall struggles? Not so much.

Keep in mind, though, that Craig's stats are largely marred by his stinker of a start. He had just three hits in his first 34 at-bats, and his inability to get the ball in the air was glaring. In the time since, it's a .261/.320/.443 slash line for Craig -- still not up to the standards we've come to expect from "The Wrench," but not as miserable as his season totals would indicate. His ground-ball and line-drive rates have returned closer to his career norms.

"Every year is a new year," said Craig, "and there are certain adjustments that need to be made every year. That's always the battle the players and hitters go through -- not forgetting what we do well and what got us here, but also thinking outside the box and finding new ways to get things done."

Even by Major League standards, Craig is thoughtful about his approach at the plate. He doesn't believe his personal success in the clutch last season (.454 average with RISP vs. a .267 average in all other trips to the plate) happened by accident, nor does he believe his early issues were, or are, cause for concern. The guy rolled off a trainer's table with a bum foot and was one of the most productive hitters in last year's World Series, so let's give him the benefit of the doubt.

I'm inclined to give the Cards, as a whole, the benefit of the doubt too. Their .500 start and second-place standing might be a disappointment, relative to their lofty expectations, but it's a reasonable base upon which to build, especially now that they're getting the run of home games they're owed after a road-heavy early schedule.

Certainly, there's room for improvement in the rotation. Lance Lynn needs to avoid the big inning, Shelby Miller needs to drastically improve his control and Jaime Garcia needs to stay healthy and be effective in his pending return in place of his now-injured replacement, Tyler Lyons.

More than anything, though, it's the offense that's going to dictate whether or not the Cardinals come alive. Nobody expected that offense to repeat last year's RISP-y business, but it's equally hard to imagine this year's situational struggles being the new norm.

The reality, as usual, is probably somewhere in the middle.

"I just think we have too much talent," said Craig, "and too many smart hitters for it to last too long."

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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