A tale of two slumps: Craig and Taveras aren’t making Matheny’s job any easier

Allen Craig and Oscar Taveras have both been uncharacteristically somber at the dish this season. 

ST. LOUIS — If ever there has been more fuss made over a guy hitting .200, it must have been before my time. And I’m quite old.

First, the pleas came to get Oscar Taveras to the majors. Now that he’s arrived, apparently for the long haul, the cries come daily to put him in the lineup.

On one hand, I get it. The 22-year right fielder is considered by the Cardinals — and all the prospect rankers — to be one of the game’s top hitting prospects. He’s pretty much lived up to that reputation in the minors, too. As manager Mike Matheny said Tuesday, Taveras has "done what he’s needed to prove (himself) at that other level." So set the stallion loose already.

But hold on. It’s also easy to make a case that Allen Craig still should get the ABs in right field. It’s surprising how quickly what this guy has done seems to be forgotten. A year ago today, Craig was hitting .490 –€“ that’s not a typo — with runners in scoring position and .335 overall. He wasn’t a half-season wonder, either. Over the 2013-14 seasons, Craig’s .427 average with RISP was the best in the majors by 51 points. His rate of driving in a run every 1.6 at-bats was tops, too.

No doubt, he’s had a miserable first 100 games in 2014. He would be the first to say so. But do you really bench him to play a rookie who is searching for his groove? In a pennant race? That’s not an easy yes.

Ask Don Mattingly. He talked about his crowded outfield when the Dodgers were here over the weekend and his strategy sounds a lot like Matheny’s: Play the hot hand, the hitter who gives you the best chance to win that day’s game.

OK, that’s easy. The hard part comes when no one takes charge, which is where the Cardinals are with Oscar and Craig. Neither has done enough to make Matheny’s job easier.

Before Tuesday night’s game, Tavares had played in 14 games since his return while Craig had appeared in 11. Oscar’s stats: 8 for 42 (.190) with three runs, three RBI, two walks and seven strikeouts. Craig’s: 6 for 38 (.158) with a home run, four RBI, two walks and seven strikeouts.

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After Craig went 0-for-3 Tuesday with walk, strikeout looking and an out to the warning track, his averaged dropped to .144 for the month. Taveras raised his July average to .209 after lining a single to right in a good-looking, pinch-hit appearance that came in the bottom of the ninth of a 7-2 loss.

With neither player stepping forward, Matheny has been leaning toward Craig since the break. He has made three of the first four starts, with two hits in 10 at-bats plus a walk. Oscar has batted in all four games but started only once, and is 2-for-5 with a walk.

Yes, it catches your eye whenever the right-handed Craig starts ahead of the lefty-hitting Taveras when the Cardinals face a right-hander. But Matheny makes a valid point when explaining his faith in Craig.

"You’re talking about a known quantity," he said. "We’re not speculating or guessing what Allen Craig can do. We’ve seen it for a few years. That’s just not a fluke. What the fluke is is how rough it’s been to get locked in. It’s been tough for him, he’s working through it and is getting closer, in our opinion. We’d love to see that come around and him have the kind of second half more accustomed to what we’ve seen."

Matheny almost makes sense when he says keeping Taveras in the majors is the way to go. Besides having nothing more to prove in Triple A, Taveras is one of the club’s five best outfielders. At this time of year, they need their best players here. No one doubts that he can help the Cardinals win games; they just need him to get hot. But they can afford to play him only so often when he’s not.

"Oscar can force our hand if he starts taking advantage of the opportunities he gets," Matheny said. "We need to get him locked in and hopefully it can happen when he gets opportunities, whether as a pinch-hitter or he does get a start. Right now, we have to figure out who’s looking best at the plate. There are some things he needs to get sorted out."

Indeed, the way Taveras looks at the plate right now isn’t appreciably better than the way Craig looks. Both are doing just enough to tease. Craig smoked a ball off the wall in his first at-bat against Clayton Kershaw on Sunday night but hasn’t had a hit in six plate appearances since. Taveras popped up harmlessly in a pinch-hit appearance Sunday before delivering a strong at-bat Tuesday.

Putting both in the lineup would mean playing Taveras in center field and that doesn’t make great sense, either. Not only would the lineup have two players scuffling, it would mean sitting Jon Jay, who is hitting .292 with a .351 OBP, as well as Peter Bourjos. Bourjos struck out looking twice Tuesday but has shown improvement at the plate lately and has been making catches in center that no one else on the team — maybe not in the majors — could come up with.

So the daily dilemma continues, and likely will until one or the other steps up. 

You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @StanMcNeal or email him at stanmcneal@gmail.com.