Friday, October 4, 2013

The Cardinals Open with a Belt(ran)

By Jeff Kallman

The single most conspicuous failure in Carlos Beltran's postseason life came at the hands of the guy whose back he took hold of Thursday. But don't ask Adam Wainwright too many questions about it. He doesn't want to break the spell of now, when they're teammates, and Wainwright might need Beltran's swing in support again before their St. Louis Cardinals go home for the winter.

It was Beltran in a New York Mets uniform who was frozen like a bag of Birdseye vegetables for strike three to end a 2006 National League Championship Series they got to within a whisker of winning in seven thrilling games. It was Wainwright who threw the subzero curve ball that left Beltran stunned at the plate and a packed Shea Stadium stunned with him.

"You know," Wainwright told reporters after the Cardinals demolished the Pittsburgh Pirates, 9-1, in Game 1 of their National League division series. "I don't know how I got him out there. And I don't really care. But who knows. I may not even be here right now if I hadn't gotten him out in that situation. My career could have gone a completely different way. Who knows? But I'm real glad he's on my team now. I know that."

In New York, of course, that's practically the only way they remember Beltran. That and the knee troubles that often got in the way of his otherwise very productive Met seasons. In St. Louis, of course, they treat Beltran like the big (Red)bird, and for reasons having nothing to do with the manner in which Wainwright iced him to send the Cardinals hurtling toward a World Series ring.

And after Thursday, they're going to treat Beltran like an eagle. Why not? Bet you didn't know that Beltran now has 15 lifetime postseason home runs, which entitles him to look Babe Ruth squarely in the eye. Except that that isn't exactly part of Beltran's makeup. He'd rather thank God for so many chances to play in the postseason, never mind that he's yet to play in a World Series, than square up the Bambino.

"Just God gave me the opportunity to be in this situation, and me being able to come through," he told reporters. "But that doesn't come with nothing. It comes with coming to the ballpark every day and preparing yourself to try to go out and have a good game."

Sometimes it comes with A.J. Burnett on the mound in the third inning, Wainwright and Matt Carpenter on base ahead of him, a seductive pitch arriving in his wheelhouse, and an effortless-looking power swing.

"I almost got caught up in the moment," Wainwright admitted. "I threw my hands up in the air as soon as he hit it, I knew it was gone. Then I realized I had to run."

Burnett didn't look like a candidate for drawing and quartering over the first two innings. He let only a walk to Matt Holliday interrupt his first inning feast of ground outs to second. And he flicked a Cardinal swarm in the bottom of the second squarely off his shoulders when, with second and third and one out, he seduced Daniel Descalso into a step-and-throw double play.

But he let Wainwright work him for a full count walk to open the third and Carpenter to slice a 3-1 single to right to continue. Then, after falling behind 2-1 to Beltran, Burnett threw a belt-high service that gets lesser men arrested for impersonating a professional baseball player if they let it pass unmolested.

Beltran isn't one of those men. He did exactly what his surname says. Belted and ran. The only thing standing between his parabolic 3-run homer and the edge of the upper deck was the right field foul pole.

And that was just the beginning of the Cardinals' boarding party. The Pirates, who'd made hash of the Cincinnati Reds just two days earlier, looked like they barely knew what was hitting them. Holliday followed Beltran with a double to the gap in right center. Matt Adams was sent diving across the plate when he was hit on the leg. Yadier Molina walked on full count to set up the ducks on the pond. And Jon Jay wrung a second straight full-count walk to send home Holliday.

Then came David Freese, who calls Beltran Mr. October but has his own splendid case for sharing that title. With nobody out still. On 2-2 Freese shot one the other way, down the right field line. Home came Adams and (on a throwing error) Jay.

That left Burnett as only the eight starter in Show history to be bastinadoed for seven earned runs with six or less outs on his jacket in a postseason game, the first since the Roberto Hernandez formerly known as Fausto Carmona (Game 6, 2007 American League Championship Series) and the first in the National League to achieve it since Brad Penny (Game 2, 2003 NLCS).

Burnett would prefer not to remain in such extinguished company.

"Hopefully," he mourned after the game, "we can turn it around and give me a chance to get that ball again. I was not able to repeat a single delivery all day, that's the bottom line." The hope rests with Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, and he wouldn't commit to naming Burnett his starter if the set goes to a fifth game.

Jeanmar Gomez came in from the pen after Jay crossed the plate. He got three outs so promptly that even the Cardinals had to be mildly surprised to see the merry-go-round come to a dead stop. In fact, until Jay scored in the bottom of the fifth on another Pirate error, this time shortstop Clint Barmes throwing a should-have-been double play ball wild enough to let Jay head home after pulling up to third.

Wainwright, of course, sailed right along, refusing to let such a little thing as Pedro Alvarez hitting the first pitch of the fourth inning into the right field seats bother him. About the only spot of real trouble came in the top of the third when Barmes hit one on the screws that looked like extra bases flying up the third base line. Or, it looked that way until Freese dove hard right to spear it in mid-flight.

Wainwright needed the extra insurance about as much as Hurdle probably needed a stiff drink or three by then, but Molina took out the extra policy on the dime of the Pirates' usually virtuoso center fielder Andrew McCutchen in the bottom of the sixth. With Adams on board with a two-out walk, Molina lofted one into the right center field gap that should have left nothing worse than second and third, except that McCutchen mishandled the ball, letting Adams carry home the ninth St. Louis run.

Cardinals reliever Carlos Martinez didn't let Freese hog all the defensive glory for himself. He picked off Russell Martin's eighth-inning bouncebacker while falling away from the first base line and still whipped a throw to first to get his man. Cardinals manager Mike Matheny could be seen by one and all mouthing, "What a play!!" And who could blame him?

It was a night on which two Cy Young Award candidates, Wainwright and the Los Angeles Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw, opened their respective NLDSes by making their opponents look like target practice. Kershaw whipped the Atlanta Braves, 6-1, in Atlanta, striking out twelve in seven innings' work, including a string of six straight, and getting a little help from his friends, most notably Adrian Gonzalez whacking a 2-run homer in the third off Kris Medlen, fattening the score to 4-0 at the time.

And, it was a night on which the Cardinals exposed Burnett's most glaring 2013 weakness—on the regular season he was 5-7, 4.22 ERA, and only six quality starts in 16 starts on the road.

None of which loomed as large as Beltran's blast and the shipwreck it launched on the Pirates. "Some guys," Carpenter said, "just have a knack for a big game and he's one of them." The Cardinals would love nothing more than to have Beltran's knack swing them to 10 more October wins. Including the four that end with World Series rings on their fingers.

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