Cardinals postseason star Craig making good progress

Sunday, March 4, 2012
Cardinals outfielder Allen Craig hits a home run during Game 7 of the World Series last season. (AP file)

Craig said he hopes to return to the lineup around opening day

JUPITER, Fla. -- It's steady as she goes for Allen Craig, the on-the-mend postseason hero for the St. Louis Cardinals.

Screws hold together his surgically repaired right kneecap following offseason surgery for an injury that sidelined him for two months in the middle of the season. He hit the field earlier this week, a nice milestone in his rehab.

There's no timetable, but Craig is confident he'll beat the original estimate that he'd be ready by May. He believes he could join a crowded outfield or challenge for playing time elsewhere sometime around opening day in early April.

"It's going to be close," Craig said. "I don't like to say that I'm going to be back on this day for sure, but the path I'm on now it could be a possibility, give or take a week or two on either end."

New Cardinals manager Mike Matheny was happy to see Craig joining the regular group for drills, and he knew it was big for Craig, too. Matheny thought Craig had his "tail between his legs" early in camp.

"I think it's a great encouragement to him that he's gotten to the point where he's progressed out ... of the training room and put the uniform on," Matheny said. "It's a huge accomplishment."

Craig began testing his legs with 90-foot repeat jogs in the outfield. It sounds small, but it's not.

"I wasn't trying to push it or anything, just trying to keep up with everyone else," Craig said. "I don't think I stood out like a sore thumb. I think I fit in, so that's good."

The 27-year-old Craig already has shown his grit by putting up big numbers during the Cardinals' World Series title run despite the balky knee. He starred in Game 7 by getting the go-ahead hit with his fourth home run of the postseason and saving a run with a leaping catch at the left-field wall that robbed Nelson Cruz of a homer.

His eighth-inning homer fueled the first of two comebacks in St. Louis' memorable 10-9, 11-inning Game 6 victory, and he was one of the team's most productive hitters in the World Series with three homers and five RBIs.

In Game 1, his pinch-hit RBI single was the go-ahead hit in a 3-2 victory over Texas. He also made the catch for the final out in Game 7.

It was difficult to tell he was hurting. The fact he didn't start every game helped him cope.

"It was tough, but I wasn't in excruciating pain," Craig said. "It wasn't something that I felt I was laboring through the game, that I didn't know if I was going to make it. It was just one of those things that was there. It was a little uncomfortable and stiff and it added one more thing for me to think about during the day to prepare for the game."

He underwent surgery in November with an expected rehab period of four to six months.

"The doctors were like, 'You've got to get this fixed now so you can have a long career,'" Craig said. "I want to be an everyday player, and if that's going to happen, I have to have a healthy knee, no question about it."

Craig was every bit as important as anybody else on the roster during the Cardinals' charge from 10 1/2 games behind Atlanta in the NL wild card standings Aug. 26.

He batted .327 in September and finished with a .315 average despite making only 47 starts last season.

Now he's showing more grit. The offseason was pretty much non-existent for Craig, who's been at the team's spring training complex since the day after the White House photo op in mid-January.

"There's really not much of an offseason for anyone," Craig said. "Everybody pretty much gets back to work within a few weeks of the World Series or after their season's over."

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