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ST. LOUIS -- If it weren't for the invention of baseball, October would be just a month for costumes and candy, and footballs spiraling through the autumn sky. But here on Planet Baseball, in the heart of the great Midwest, October has a different meaning, a meaning unlike any other month on the calendar.
It's Carlos Beltran's kind of month. It's Adam Wainwright's kind of month. It's the St. Louis Cardinals' kind of month.
And here we go. They're at it again.
They worked their October magic one more time Thursday at Busch Stadium, with a 9-1 thrashing of the no-longer-in-Pittsburgh Pirates, in Game 1 of the National League Division Series. And it all looked way too familiar.
Beltran crunched the 15th postseason home run of his increasingly remarkable career, and found himself eye to eye in the record books with some dude named Babe Ruth.
Wainwright spun seven more brilliant, three-hit innings off his own October ace-hood assembly line, and lowered his lifetime postseason ERA to 2.27.
The National League's most relentless offense smoked A.J. Burnett for seven runs in the third inning before the guy on the mound could even get an out.
And it should have come as a surprise to no one. Not just because the Cardinals won 97 games this year. But because those 97 wins merely brought them to this time, to this place, to this month -- their favorite month of the year.
|Burnett walked four and struck out none in less than three innings of work.|
"The whole season, 162 games' worth, was just building to these moments right here," said Wainwright.
And whatever the art is of rising to these moments, the Cardinals have sculpted a formula for it that filters through an entire locker room. It's in their blood. It's in their culture. It's in their meticulous preparation. And it's in their brains, where they've come to understand that the teams that can elevate their game in October are the teams that get to spray the Moet & Chandon.
"I think you have to elevate it," said their third baseman, David Freese, who added two more hits to his own epic October scrapbook, running his postseason hitting streak at Busch to 15 consecutive games. "When it comes crunch time, you've got to step up. That's the way the postseason is, in every sport."
Who knows why it is that certain men can do that better than your average mortals. But it happens. And the Cardinals have done an excellent job of cornering the market on a bunch of Mr. Octobers who have been doing that all their baseball lives.
If you were to make a list, though, of every player in this sport who completely embraces what this special month is all about, where would Carlos Beltran rank? If he isn't No. 1, it might be time for a recount. Sorry, Derek.
Beltran's career postseason slugging percentage -- after 35 games and 156 plate appearances stretched over a decade -- is .783. Pretty sweet number. Also the highest postseason slugging percentage in the history of baseball.
His career October OPS is now 1.245. That, too, ranks No. 1 in the history of October baseball.
But on this day, those didn't even rate as his most significant postseason numbers of the day. That's because, in the third inning of this game, Carlos Beltran did what he always seems to do this time of year:
He changed another October baseball game with one swing.
The scoreboard still read "0-0" as he rocked in the box with two men on and nobody out in the third. But not for long. Not after Burnett made the biggggggg mistake of leaving a 2-1 two-seamer in Beltran's hit-me zone -- and Mr. October promptly uncoiled and launched one of his all-time rockets.
It clanked, appropriately, off the Powerball sign on the facing of the third deck in right field.
"Probably the farthest ball I've ever seen hit," said Freese, "to right field in this stadium."
And as 45,693 people erupted in joy and Beltran floated gracefully around the bases, the historians in this ballpark knew instantly what this meant:
• Carlos Beltran -- 15 postseason home runs.
• Babe Ruth -- 15 postseason home runs.
But by the end of the night, that stat would get even better:
• Carlos Beltran -- 15 postseason home runs in 129 at-bats.
• Babe Ruth -- 15 postseason home runs in 129 at-bats.
Holy schmoly. How cool is that? Tied with his Bambino-ness for the greatest postseason home run rate of all time (one every 8.6 at-bats)! Most tremendous postseason stat ever, even if the Babe never did get to play in anything known as a "Division Series."
|Beltran tied Babe Ruth for most career postseason homers (15).|
"What would I say if you told me that?" Freese pondered. "Well," he said, laughing, "I'd believe you ... that guy knows how to play in October."
Seriously. But how does Carlos Beltran know? Where does this come from? What makes it possible? We seem to find ourselves asking Beltran these same questions every October. And he still hasn't figured out how to answer, other than to thank God for "giving me the opportunity to play in meaningful games."
"You know, there is no other explanation," he said. "Just God gave me the opportunity to be in this situation, and me being able to come through. 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."
Ah, if it were only that simple, everybody could be Mr. October. But Beltran has somehow found a way to fuse talent, work ethic, experience and a sense of The Moment to weave one magical October moment after another. And his teammates know exactly what they're watching.
"We've played against him. Now we've played with him," said Wainwright. "He's been such an amazing player during the regular season, it's really not that surprising he does it in the postseason. But I think when you have the experience that he's had and the moments to look back on ... I mean, this guy is just a postseason monster."
And when you pile Beltran's postseason greatness on top of the regular-season numbers that are beginning to paint him as one of the best switch-hitters in history, that Carlos Beltran Hall of Fame debate gets more intriguing every day.
But that's also a debate for another time, another place. Because he and all the Cardinals' other Mr. Octobers have a lot more work to do this month.
And that includes the man who pitched this game -- because Adam Wainwright is etching an imposing October record of his own, with every trip he makes to the mound.
He has now made five postseason starts in his career -- and given up one earned run or none in four of them. But that's not all.
Counting his stint as the special guest mystery closer on the 2006 World Series champs, he also has pitched all or part of 44 postseason innings -- and been scored on in only five of them.
|Wainwright pitched from the stretch on just three occasions in Game 1.|
And with nine more K's on the K Counter Thursday, Wainwright's career postseason strikeout ratio stands at 11.57 per nine innings -- which ranks as the fourth best of all time among pitchers with at least 30 postseason innings.
Those are the feats of a true October ace. But Wainwright did his best to deflect suggestions that he's done anything special yet -- because across this very locker room, he has seen his friend and mentor, Chris Carpenter, do so much more than he's ever done in games like these.
"I've got a long ways to go," Wainwright said, as humbly as possible. "It's been a good start, but I'm chasing No. 29 [Carpenter] over there. We're all chasing him. He's got 10 postseason wins. So he sets the bar high."
But in this particular October, Chris Carpenter isn't going to throw a pitch. So Wainwright understands the responsibility that is being placed on him this fall -- to be what Carpenter has long been for this team, to be The Man.
And if that's what the Cardinals want and need him to be, then "you can definitely count me in," Wainwright said. "I'd love to be that guy. Chris Carpenter -- if I'm ever compared to him, I'll take it as a huge compliment."
Well, the time for those comparisons has arrived. But that's fitting on this team, because there's an October hero to be found on so many spots on this club's diamond.
There's an incredible irony, though, to the fact that, on this October Thursday in St. Louis, Carlos Beltran and Adam Wainwright would find themselves sharing this stage -- because, as any Mets fan can tell you, there was once a time when Carlos Beltran didn't rise to the moment in October. And it was all Wainwright's fault.
It was Wainwright, of course, who threw the final pitch of the 2006 National League Championship Series. It was Beltran who froze and took that pitch for strike three. So the Cardinals headed off to the World Series. The Mets headed off to the first tee. And isn't it strange that now, it feels like Wainwright was the only pitcher who ever managed to get Beltran out in a spot like that?
Asked if he ever brings up that strikeout, Wainwright chuckled: "Absolutely not. He has a knack for getting big hits when I pitch. And I don't want to change that.
"You know," Wainwright went on, "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."
They don't just share a uniform these days, however. They share a love for the month that both fuels and defines them. And now -- for Carlos Beltran, for Adam Wainwright, for the St. Louis Cardinals -- that month is finally here.
So as they reminded us Thursday, this team has a lot more on its mind this October than costumes, candy or footballs spiraling through the autumn sky.
The St. Louis Cardinals have 10 more games to win.