|ESPN.com: MLB Playoffs 2006||[Print without images]|
What Troy Aikman was to the Buffalo Bills ...
What Tiger Woods was, and is, to the golf-course architects of the entire universe ...
That's what Carlos Beltran is to the St. Louis Cardinals.
|Carlos Beltran's two-run blast in the sixth inning was his first homer of this postseason.|
Thursday night, in Game 1 of the second National League Championship Series of Carlos Beltran's life, he did what he does every time he sees some Cardinals pitcher firing a pitch in his direction in a month we often refer to as "October."
He launched a baseball that needed its own air-traffic controller.
He launched a baseball that didn't come down until it had nearly wiped Tom Glavine's number off the scoreboard (which happened to be minding its own business, 430 feet away, at the time).
He launched a baseball that turned a 0-0 pitcher's duel into a 2-0 victory for his latest employer, the New York Mets.
And let's just say this is getting to be a more familiar story line than the one about the CSI crew unraveling another crime-caper mystery.
This was Beltran's eighth career postseason game against the Cardinals. They have now served up five home runs to him in those eight games, in just 28 at-bats. He now owns as many October homers against them as singles.
This rampage began two years ago, when Beltran was an Astro and the Cardinals were doing their best to boost his impending free-agent earning power. Anybody remember how that turned out?
In a seven-game NLCS back then, all Beltran did was hit .417, with a .563 on-base percentage, a .958 slugging percentage and a home run in four games in a row -- until the Cardinals remembered there was such a concept as "ball four."
"I wasn't here two years ago, but I remember it," said Cardinals shortstop David Eckstein. "This is all new to me, but I watched that on TV. He hit so many home runs in that series, that's why he's over here right now. Isn't it?"
Well, yeah. It is, as a matter of fact. After Beltran spent that October looking like some kind of freaky combination of Reggie Jackson, Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan and Enrique Iglesias, his free-agent asking price hit 100 million bucks faster than you could say, "Scott Boras."
He found one team on the planet that was willing to pay him those 100 million buckaroos -- the Mets. So here he is, hanging out in exotic Shea Stadium, doing to the Cardinals now what he did to the Cardinals then.
A year ago, his admirers at Shea spent every waking moment booing him. Now they think he's worth every zero that comes after that one and that dollar sign. Heroic October home runs can have that power sometimes.
Hitting this home run, said Carlos Beltran afterward, "brings memories." And heck, could it not?
"But I cannot be thinking about what I did in 2004," he said. "This is 2006, and I just need to continue to do it."
This, however, is where it's time to ask a momentous question:
Is that even possible -- that a regular old member of the human species (even one with a really large paycheck) could continue to do that?
Well, theoretically, anything's possible. But if you do the math, you'd have to wonder.
Among all men who have gotten at least 50 at-bats in October and don't happen to be named "Carlos Beltran," the greatest home-run ratio in postseason history belongs to a fabled, autumnal kind of guy named Jim Leyritz. Who hit one every 7.6 at-bats.
Carlos Beltran, on the other hand, has hit a home run every 6.6 October at-bats. And against the Cardinals he has made a trot every 5.6 at-bats.
Scary, isn't it?
Jose Vizcaino witnessed Beltran's blitzkrieg two years ago as an Astro. He witnessed Chapter 2 Thursday on the other side of the picture window, as a Cardinals reserve. It looked awfully familiar, just not quite as enjoyable.
"The series two years ago, I've never seen anything like it," Vizcaino said. "Anything they threw up there, he was hitting it out of the park. But in this situation tonight, he was sitting on that fastball. He missed the first couple we threw to him. But I was thinking, 'We've got to mix it up. We've got to throw him sliders, down and in, or something.' But we threw that fastball in the middle of the plate, and he didn't miss it. He was waiting for that pitch. He was waiting for that pitch all night."
The man who threw that pitch was Jeff Weaver. He isn't quite as world-renowned for his October heroics as Beltran is (Weaver's lifetime postseason record before this year: 0-2, 9.72 ERA). And now that you mention it, April through September didn't go so hot for Jeff Weaver this year, either (8-14, 5.76).
But Weaver kicked off this postseason with five shutout innings against the Padres in Game 2 of the NLDS. And he spun off five more shutout innings to start this game and this series. He never threw 10 straight shutout innings at any point during the entire regular season, naturally. But he was picking an excellent time to have the light bulb flash on.
As they rolled into the sixth inning, Weaver and Tom Glavine were dueling each other in a classic, scoreless October baseball game. Little did they know what awaited.
But Glavine, making the 34th postseason start of his career (matching Andy Pettitte for the most in history), was just as untouchable. Which meant, Weaver said, "it was nail-biting time."
With two outs in the sixth inning, Weaver was still working on that one-hitter. But then Paul Lo Duca bounced a single that just made it through the left side of the infield. And that brought up Mr. New Millennium October, Beltran.
"I just wanted to be aggressive," Weaver said. "With two outs in the inning, obviously I didn't want to walk him and give [Carlos] Delgado the opportunity to come up there and do some damage."
The count went to 2-and-2. Catcher Yadier Molina set up low and away. But Weaver floated this one right down Grand Central.
And from the instant Beltran unleashed his picturesque swing, from the moment the baseball roared up into the chillified October sky, the question was not whether this game was still tied. The question was whether this ball was going to use the EZ-Pass lane on the Whitestone Bridge or just stop at a toll booth on the Triboro.
"That's pretty much how he got where he is right now," Weaver said afterward. "He's a great ballplayer. That's why he makes all that money."
Yeah, that explains it, all right.
Although he hit 41 home runs this year (tying Todd Hundley's all-time Mets record), Beltran wasn't doing stuff like this down the stretch. He had an injury-plagued, 2-homer, 4-RBI September, followed by a 2-for-9, 0-homer, 1-RBI Division Series.
But then the Cardinals showed up.
"You see this type of thing, and you really start to believe something special's going on," said Beltran's teammate, Cliff Floyd. "You look at how Weaver was coming at everyone else -- flipping curveballs up there, flipping cutters up there. And then you see how he pitched Beltran -- fastball after fastball. And you start to wonder."
Well, the Cardinals should be starting to wonder, at any rate. Why are they still pitching to this man?
"If somebody was doing that to my team," Floyd said, "I'd treat him like Albert Pujols. I would."
But Cardinals manager Tony La Russa keeps saying he doesn't believe in that. So his team keeps challenging Carlos Beltran. And Beltran keeps breaking light bulbs on the scoreboard.
His career October numbers now stand at .389, with nine homers, 17 RBI, seven stolen bases, a .514 on-base percentage and an .898 slugging percentage. And since this, of course, New York, someone asked him what he knew about the October exploits of Reginald M. Jackson.
"I'm Carlos Beltran," he replied. "Reggie Jackson is Reggie Jackson."
Yes, different men, different names, different stories. But the heroes of October have their common thread. Once they have done it once beneath the October floodlights, they never have to worry again if they can do it again.
"Once a guy steps up and does that type of thing," said Cliff Floyd, "he always has it in the vault. He can go back and get it whenever he needs it. It's right there."
Oh, it's right there, all right. And the St. Louis Cardinals are kind enough to keep delivering the vault to Carlos Beltran's door every darned October evening. Aren't they?
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.