St. Louis pinch hitter Allen Craig hits a run-scoring single off Texas reliever… (Jamie Squire / Getty Images )
Reporting from St. Louis — Like most everyone at Busch Stadium, Allen Craig spent the first five innings of the World Series opener huddling in an oversized jacket trying to stay warm.
But when the Cardinals came to bat in the sixth inning of a tie game, he had a hunch his night was about to get a bit more interesting.
"Throughout the year I've been the guy to come off the bench early," he said.
Partly because he also has been the guy most likely to come through in the pinch. And he did both Wednesday, driving a two-out, tiebreaking single to right field to give St. Louis a 3-2 win over the Texas Rangers and a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
It might not have been Craig's most artistic at-bat of the season. In fact, he started it by flailing wildly at two blazing fastballs from Rangers reliever Alexi Ogando.
But it was clearly the most impressive one.
"Cold-weather game, sitting on the bench, World Series," Cardinal Manager Tony La Russa said. "It's not a very good situation."
Those, however, are the kind of situations La Russa thrives on as well.
No manager in more than half a century has won more games than La Russa. And during that time he has been credited with pioneering the practice of a ninth-inning closer and perfecting the double-switch, among other innovations.
So if the World Series was to become a chess match, Texas Manager Ron Washington admitted, it would likely be a one-sided one.
"I don't think I can ever live up to matching a wit with Tony La Russa," he said.
Actually, it was Washington who started the maneuvering that set up Craig's decisive at-bat.
Starters Chris Carpenter of St. Louis and C.J. Wilson had battled to a draw into the sixth inning, with Wilson giving up a two-run single to Lance Berkman in the fourth and Carpenter allowing a tying two-run home run by Mike Napoli in the fifth.
Then the Cardinals began to mount another rally when David Freese doubled and moved to third on a wild pitch in the sixth. Yadier Molina struck out for the second out, but with first base open and Carpenter on deck, Washington elected to have Wilson pitch around the next hitter, Nick Punto — just as La Russa figured he would.
So La Russa lifted Carpenter for a pinch-hitter, Washington lifted Wilson for Ogando and four pitches later Craig sliced a sinking line drive in front of a sliding Nelson Cruz near the right-field line to give the Cardinals a 3-2 lead.
"He's pulling all the right strings and it's fun to watch. It's working out for us," Craig said of his manager. "I don't know what else to say. He's making the right moves and we're winning games."
Lots of games. Including the postseason, St. Louis has won 31 of its last 44, charging from 101/2 games back in the National League wild-card race to within three wins of a World Series title.
"I'm not surprised," Molina said of La Russa, his manager for all eight of his big league seasons. "He's been in the league for too many years. And he knows what he's doing. When he makes a move it's for a reason."
And on this night La Russa didn't stop with Craig, emptying his bullpen by making five pitching changes and two defensive switches over the final three innings. All those worked out too, with the relievers retiring the last eight Texas batters in order, preserving the lead Craig had given them.
"He's got a history in our system," La Russa said of Craig, a 27-year-old from Temecula who is finishing his first full major league season. "That's why we like him so much. He's got a history of taking great at-bats."
And if St. Louis goes on to win the Series, he's likely to wind up with a lasting place in Cardinals history as well.