Holliday believes he can help carry Cards down the stretch

ST. LOUIS — When ranking the Cardinals’ MVP candidates at the three-quarter mark of the season, you start — and finish — with Yadier Molina.

But as obvious as Molina’s value is to the Cardinals, the candidates for runner-up MVP aren’t so easy to distinguish.
Do you like Allen Craig’s majors-best .461 batting average with runners in scoring position and team-leading 88 RBIs? Or do you prefer Matt Carpenter and his NL-best 88 runs, .315 batting average and .850 OPS?

Or maybe you believe the way Edward Mujica rescued the bullpen — and perhaps saved the Cardinals’ season — makes him worthy.

Don’t forget Carlos Beltran, who has carried the offense at times, and Adam Wainwright, the majors’ No. 1 workhorse starter.  

I’d order them Carpenter, Craig, Mujica, Beltran and Wainwright.

Which brings us to the point of this exercise: Where is Matt Holliday?

No matter how you rank the five following Molina, Holliday is an easy omission. The team’s highest-paid player has been no better than its seventh most valuable player this season.

So far. Entering a weekend at Wrigley Field with three day games, the Cardinals still have 42 games left in the regular season, just more than a quarter of their schedule. If Holliday can produce at the level he has since returning from the disabled list last month, he will move up on the list of Cardinal MVPs.

Holliday had at least one hit in every game and was on base 23 times in the just-completed 10-game homestand. He hit a team-high .457/.558/.657 with two homers (half of the team’s total) and a team-best eight RBIs. After hitting .268 before the All-Star break, he since has hit .405. And while it might have seemed like more, he grounded into “only” three double plays.

Though Holliday, 33, is one day older than Albert Pujols, Holliday has avoided most of the career-decline scrutiny. His numbers are going down, but at a trickle. Last year: .295/.379/.497. This year: .294/.378/.469. Holliday, an ardent advocate of the Cardinals’ don’t-get-ahead-of-yourself approach, believes he’s capable of big things down the stretch.

“Carlos and Yadi carried us a lot the first half,” he said after delivering a walk-off single in Thursday’s 6-5 victory over the Pirates. “That’s the kind of player I feel like I should be.”

As for his sluggish first half, Holliday does not make excuses.

“This is my 10th year. You’re going to go through periods when you’re not happy with your production,” he said. “It’s part of hitting. I see it all over the league. You see some of the greatest hitters can’t get a hit for 40 at-bats. The phenomenon of hitting is hard to figure out.”

That doesn’t mean he was content, even if you didn’t see him smashing his bat in the dugout.

“He’s a professional and he cares,” manager Mike Matheny said. “He wants to win and he wants to do his part. He can’t hide it in high-intensity situations.”

His time on the disabled list that stretched over the All-Star break might have done as much to right his approach as heal his right hamstring. Since coming off the DL, Holliday has been held hitless only twice in 20 games. In 11 games, he has had at least two hits. Whatever was bothering him is no longer.

After being dropped a spot in the batting order two weeks ago, Holliday returned to the three-hole Thursday and RBI leader Craig went back to hitting cleanup.

“Matt has been hitting the ball very well,” Matheny said. “We had such good success with Allen being in that (cleanup) spot to drive in runs. I said when we moved Matt out, I still loved having him in that (three-hole) spot. We may flop them around again if we feel it just needs some small movement to help guys get going.

“It’s just something we think about a lot.”

Matheny might deliberate over the batting order, but Holliday doesn’t. He didn’t even realize he was back in the three-hole until shortly before first pitch Thursday. Holliday was warming up in the indoor batting cage when he saw a lineup sheet.

“I had to check the date to make sure,” he said.

Indeed, it was Aug. 15, giving him six weeks to move up the list of team MVP candidates.

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