ST. LOUIS — Allen Craig keeps accumulating mementos.
He kept the 2011 World Series gear, the bats and the glove and the uniform. More recently, he set a clean, white envelope aside.
“I may frame it,” the St. Louis Cardinals’ first baseman said of his official invitation to the upcoming MLB All-Star Game.
When manager Mike Matheny entered the Cardinals’ clubhouse with five sought-after invites in his hand following a 5-4 win against the Miami Marlins on Saturday, there was no guarantee Craig’s name would be inked across one in black marker.
“I would be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking about it,” Craig said. “I think I had a pretty good first half. I put myself in the running. I was in the conversation. But, at the same time, I know how it works.”
While Yadier Molina, Carlos Beltran and Adam Wainwright were locks, Craig was, to be honest, a bit of a crapshoot. He had played reliable defense at first base, carried a National League-best .476 batting average with runners in scoring position and owned the second-most RBIs (68) in the Senior Circuit. But the home run and star power of Cincinnati’s Joey Votto (15) and Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt (20) decreased his chances of making the cut.
San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy, who will manage the National League All-Star team, solved the logjam by selecting Craig as one of the four players he added to the NL roster after fans and players passed Craig by. It was Bochy’s decision that gave Matheny the pleasure of placing an envelope in his first baseman’s hand.
“I’m very grateful that he realized how valuable Allen Craig is, and what he’s done,” Matheny said. “That was a managerial selection, and it was a big deal for us.”
“To take anybody else after you already have four (Cardinals players) on the team you don’t have a say in, I admire the fact that he could have easily just walked away and tried to appease some other people,” Matheny added. “But he wanted to go to who he felt was one of the standouts. What Allen has been able to do — his offensive production, his versatility — all that goes into him being acknowledged for this.”
In St. Louis, Craig’s value is a topic with worn tread. He’s no longer an unknown, and he has the contract (a five-year extension worth a reported $31 million) to prove it. Now that the All-Star Game no longer eludes him, it’s time to stop pretending the 28-year-old is flying under anyone’s radar.
When he travels to New York to walk the major leagues’ red carpet next week, he will take another step into baseball’s bright lights, moving farther out of the shadows of Molina, Beltran and St. Louis poster boy David Freese.
“I don’t think he gets as much credit as he probably should,” second baseman Matt Carpenter, the fifth Cardinal to make the All-Star team, said of Craig. “But we know what kind of player he is. You can see by the numbers. He’s an RBI machine, a clutch hitter who is really playing good defense at first, too. He’s the total package.”
Perceptions are changing, though. Craig isn’t a dark horse anymore. Just ask first-year Miami Marlins manager Mike Redmond, who watched Craig drive in three runs and make multiple diving stops at first base as the Cardinals swept his team in a three-game series played in St. Louis the same weekend the All-Star team was announced.
“This guy, he plays some great first base,” Redmond said. “And he puts together some great at-bats. He’s got pop, but he’s more so just a smart hitter. That’s what he’s doing. He knows how to work counts and grind out pitchers. He’s a big run producer for those guys. He’s a great player.”
Bochy obviously shares the opinion.
Anyone who doesn’t has some tough numbers to explain away.
In 64 games at first base this season, Craig has committed one error. And while his home run total (10) is lower than some of his All-Star counterparts, he’s among elite company at the plate. Some perspective Cardinals fans can appreciate: Craig now has 71 RBIs; he has added three since he was named to the All-Star team. That total is more than any Cardinal has had before the All-Star break since Albert Pujols totaled 76 in 2006.
Even after a rare 0-for-2 evening in the Cardinals’ 5-4 win over Houston on Thursday, Craig’s .327 batting average was fourth-best in all of baseball. His average with runners in scoring position remains an impressive .477.
Craig is an All-Star now, and there are no underrated All-Stars. His invitation, issued by Bochy and destined for a frame, is a sign of the league-wide respect he has earned.
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