ST. LOUIS — Sometimes, gunpowder needs a little flash. Carlos Beltran’s bat has been a musket for most of his 15-year career despite fading late this summer, and a few bullet points on his regular-season resume reveal why.
He has launched at least 22 home runs 10 times. He has produced at least 100 RBI eight times. He has surpassed an on-base percentage of .350 eight times. His smoke trail has led him from the Kansas City Royals to the Houston Astros to the New York Mets to the San Francisco Giants and, finally, to the St. Louis Cardinals as a key offseason pickup after Albert Pujols sprouted Angel wings in Southern California and sharp horns among some in the Gateway City.
So here Beltran was, about 10 months after he inked a two-year contract worth $26 million, and he stood before his stall Monday night at Busch Stadium fresh off more firepower that helped St. Louis rout the Washington Nationals 12-4 in Game 2 of their National League Division Series. The right-fielder went 2-for-4 and cracked two home runs for three RBI. He spoke about staying driven despite his team’s 13-hit napalm run of Davey Johnson’s pitching staff.
“Here,” Beltran said, a red duffle bag packed for Washington near his feet, “we have some guys who have been in postseason many years and guys like me who have never been able to win a championship.”
For Beltran, this postseason sprint is about more. It’s about unfinished business. It’s about licking his lips with October’s milk and honey — his mouth went dry with the Astros in 2004 and the Mets in ‘06 — and he knew Monday’s result represented a start toward a push for his elusive World Series berth.
These Cardinals have been as hard to read as Egyptian hieroglyphs at times under first-year manager Mike Matheny, so no deep postseason run is guaranteed. There are questions that accompany Beltran’s quest as St. Louis teeters on a tightrope, among them: Will the bullpen hold late? Will a spotty offense produce when it must? Will a rookie skipper lead with sound judgment on a stage bright enough to blind the insecure?
Time will show in the coming days, perhaps as soon as the next possible three games at Nationals Park. A champion has not repeated since the New York Yankees completed a three-peat in 2000. Beltran is closer to his career’s end than its start — he turned 35 in April — so he’s no longer a wide-eyed duckling dressed in Royals blue.
That’s why there’s some urgency from the Manati, Puerto Rico, native along with the month’s drop in temperature. Beltran’s fireworks Monday showed how lethal the Cardinals’ offense can be when one of its best barrels shreds opposing pitching: He has a .385 batting average (15 for 39) in 10 career NLDS games, with six home runs and 13 RBI; he owns the best postseason slugging percentage (.819) in history; and he tormented the scrappy Nationals in seven regular-season appearances by smashing two home runs and six hits for seven RBI against them.
“We needed to win,” Beltran said after Game 2. “That was a must-win game for us. It was a good thing. … That was going to be the preferred scenario for us, being able to leave this place with an even series. Thank God we did that.”
Beltran’s lift brought to mind light-hearted days before the All-Star break, when he was lofted as one of baseball’s best. Those seem distant, after he batted .236 in the second half. But Monday’s postgame scene was as if he had stepped back into May, back into a stronger hour. After the game, Cardinals outfielder Adron Chambers settled into a chair next to Beltran as reporters gathered near the star.
“I thought I hit the home run,” Chambers said, and some laughs broke out among the group.
Beltran went on to discuss the night’s meaning. He talked about how he helped bring back the Cardinals’ repeat bid from the brink. He talked about how his dugout is filled with postseason experience. He talked about how such a background should help against a spirited group of up-and-comers in the clubhouse around the corner.
“Anyone can have a good day, and anyone can have a bad day,” Beltran said, knowing he had one of his better efforts at the best possible time.