West Tenn Round-up: Matt Craig

JACKSON, Tenn. - Matt Craig has been a productive part of first place West Tenn's lineup this season, batting .280 with four home runs and 17 RBI through his first 24 games. Inside, Craig tells Inside The Ivy that he attributes his success to familiarity with his role. Also, an exclusive conversation with the 24-year-old regarding his 15-day suspension for violating MLB's Minor League Drug Prevention and Treatment Program, and what he's done to help clear his name.

"I can cut down on my strikeouts a lot more," admits Craig, who has fanned 19 times this season. "At Daytona (in 2003), all of my home runs came in the second half of the year. I consider myself a well-rounded guy. Wherever I hit in the lineup, I just need to drive in runs. The RBI is the single most important number to me."

Craig began the season batting .314 through his first 10 games, but had to sit out 15 games for violating Major League Baseball's Minor League Drug Prevention and Treatment Program. He appealed the suspension, which allowed him to start on Opening Night, but the ruling was not lifted and the corner infielder had to sit out over two weeks.

Craig says he did not knowingly take any illegal substances.

"(Cubs Director of Player Development) Oneri Fleita was the one who told me," Craig said of the suspension. "I was shocked; my mind was going a mile a minute. They (the Cubs) were all helpful."

The reason Craig does not feel he is consciously guilty is because he has gone in for follow-up drug tests, and because Major League Baseball has not informed him of the exact substance that showed up positive.

"I had my own test ran and it came back negative," Craig said. "I have had two tests done on my own dime. I went to the doctor's office and got it done. During the season, I'm not a guy that wants to take anything. I'm as much in the dark as anybody else, and I'm going to start taking these tests on my own dime. I want to know if I'm taking stuff that is illegal so that I can stop it if it is.

"I do think it's interesting that the tests came back negative. I was beside myself during those days."

Craig quickly regained his stroke upon returning from the suspension on May 3. He knows he is an important part of the lineup, and the 2002 third round draft pick has a strong confidence in his abilities, particularly in clutch situations.

"I like hitting in the RBI situations," said Craig. "I like coming up with runners on base. I want to be the guy to drive runners in with men on base and two outs. I like that feeling; that sense of, 'We can win it or lose it all right here.' I want to be that guy. It's all mental. You work on your swing and where your arms are, but it's really all between your ears."

This is Craig's second season with the Diamond Jaxx. He has shown the Cubs versatility by willing to play both third and first base. A strong respect for manager Bobby Dickerson and hitting coach Von Joshua made it acceptable for Craig to return to Jackson.

"I told Bobby that I would play for him anywhere," Craig said. "The Cubs have my best interests in mind in regards to developing me as a player. I was really looking forward to starting this season and coming back here."

Being on a team as talented as the Jaxx are has also made the season more joyful for the Dallas native. The lineup consisting of Felix Pie, Matt Murton, Brandon Sing and Ryan Theriot has produced a total of 207 runs, the second most in the Southern League this year.

Craig does not expect the offense, which leads the league with a .302 batting average, to start regressing anytime soon.

"It's been great," Craig said. "It's by far the best team I've ever been on talent- and personality-wise. I think a lot of it is chemistry. Ricky Nolasco and Rich Hill have been great as starters. We're a little more talented this year than last. We don't think we're out of any ballgame. Everybody knows what their job is and what they need to do."

Scott Sabin is the contributing editor of Inside The Ivy. Write to Scott at scott@insidetheivy.com.

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