ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- During batting practice Tuesday morning, Adrian Beltre strutted around laughing and joking with his teammates, when he wasn't smacking balls into the stands.
Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington figured his third baseman was going to have a nice day because he was so loose.
Three home runs, however, never crossed Washington's mind. Why would it?
Only five men had ever done that, including Babe Ruth, who did it twice. Well, we can add Beltre's name to the list.
Beltre, the Rangers' $80 million consolation prize for not signing Cliff Lee, became the first player to hit three homers in an American League Division Series game as he led the Rangers into the American League Championship Series for the second consecutive season.
Beltre homered in each of his first three at-bats as the Rangers beat the Tampa Bay Rays, 4-3, to win the series three games to one.
This victory was an old-school Rangers bashing. Or mashing, if you prefer.
Ian Kinsler homered to left on the game's second pitch, setting the tone. Beltre took care of the rest.
In the second inning, he homered to left on Jeremy Hellickson's second pitch, a letter-high fastball. In the fourth, Hellickson threw Beltre two curveballs and a changeup before trying to sneak a fastball away past him.
Beltre sent the pitch over the right-field wall for a 3-1 Texas lead. And in the seventh, he blasted rookie phenom Matt Moore's first pitch into the left-field stands for a 4-2 lead.
We probably shouldn't be shocked, considering Beltre hammered the ball in September, earning player of the month honors thanks to 12 homers, 29 RBIs and a .374 average.
Then again, he entered Game 4 of the ALDS with one hit in 11 at-bats. That said, Washington said Beltre started centering the ball in Game 2.
"Yep," Beltre smirked, when asked if he felt locked in before the game.
"For some reason I didn't feel right in batting practice the last three days. I wasn't really hitting the ball like I wanted to, and today something clicked."
Now, the debate can begin. Would you rather have Lee or Beltre?
Right now, the answer is Beltre because he's been everything the Rangers expected from his overall game to his clubhouse demeanor. After Lee turned down the their advances, they swiftly focused on Beltre.
They liked him because he could hit and play a Gold Glove-caliber third base, which combined with shortstop Elvis Andrus' skill set, would make their pitchers better.
And when they started talking to trainers, strength coaches, former managers and teammates about Beltre's personality, general manager Jon Daniels thought Beltre would fit nicely in the Rangers' clubhouse.
"Everyone you talked to said he was a great guy and a tough competitor," Daniels said. "They said he'd play hard, he'd play hurt and he'd be a leader in the clubhouse."
Beltre's five-year, $80 million contract is just about the best investment the Rangers could've made this offseason. Yes, even better than if Lee had accepted their six-year contract.
Beltre finished the season with 32 homers, 105 RBIs and a .296 average in addition to sensational defense. If he hadn't missed six weeks in July and August with a hamstring strain, we'd be talking about Beltre for MVP.
As for Beltre, he's thrilled with how the season has turned out. He hasn't been in the playoffs since 2004, when he was 25 years old.
"Besides my first hit in the big leagues, this is probably my best day because my team needed every bit of it to win the game."
When Kinsler flipped the ball to Andrus for the game's final out, Beltre thrust his right arm in the air and bounced excitedly before racing to hug first baseman Mitch Moreland.
Then, he met Kinsler and Andrus behind the mound for a group hug until their teammates joined the celebration.
The smile never left his face.
Jean-Jacques Taylor is a columnist for ESPNDallas.com.