In hockey, successful franchises subscribe to the same axiom: If you’ve won the Stanley Cup recently, it’s imperative to acquire a veteran of stature who hasn’t. The idea is that his yearning for a title – and the respect he commands – will keep his teammates focused around a common cause.
If we apply the same concept to a different sport, Carlos Beltran is that player for the St. Louis Cardinals.
The Cardinals have the most championships of any National League franchise, their latest coming only two seasons ago. But Beltran – 36 years old, now at the end of his 16th season – is looking for his first World Series ring.
In fact, he’s searching for his first World Series appearance.
After Friday night, he’s only three wins away from the Fall Classic. Mostly, he has himself to thank. Beltran drove in all of the Cardinals’ runs in a 3-2 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series; the last came on his walk-off single in the 13th, an opportunity the Cardinals had because of Beltran’s laser throw to nab Mark Ellis at the plate three innings earlier.
Such is the irony of Beltran in October: He’s a career .345 hitter in the playoffs – with 16 postseason home runs, more than Babe Ruth – but his surrounding cast never has been good enough (or lucky enough) to reach the World Series. There was Beltran’s NLCS-ending strikeout in 2006 while a Met, but the overall body of work speaks for itself.
“That guy,” admired St. Louis starter Joe Kelly, “is a freaking stud.”
The Cardinals’ signing of Beltran after the 2011 season – to replace Albert Pujols, of course – was and is a masterstroke by general manager John Mozeliak. Beltran made a wise move, too, joining a team that gave him arguably the best chance to win a title over the course of a two-year, $26 million contract. The Cardinals fell one victory short against San Francisco in the 2012 NLCS. This year could be different.
Beltran has been as advertised, posting an .836 OPS over the two regular seasons while averaging 148 games per year. He’s setting himself up for a nice payday this winter, even though he will turn 37 shortly after Opening Day.
A few more thoughts on the Cardinals’ Game 1 victory:
• The Dodgers have been described as the West Coast Yankees because of their spending might. But the Cardinals are the “New Yankees” in another respect: theatric postseason victories.
In most Octobers during the Jeter-Rivera Era, it was assumed the Yankees would find (or invent) ways to win games – especially at Yankee Stadium, and most often in a fashion that demoralized the opponent. The hero might have been Bernie Williams or Aaron Boone or Jeffrey Maier. Regardless, the outcome was the same.
The Cardinals are beginning to reach that level, from Yadier Molina at Shea Stadium in ’06, to David Freese’s World Series walk-off in ’11, to the rally in Washington last October that remains seared into the memories of Nationals fans.
The player who most embodies that ethos is a 5-foot-10 infielder who batted .238 this season.
Without Daniel Descalso, the Cardinals would not have much mystique right now. It was his single that started the Cardinals’ two-run, game-tying 10th-inning rally in Game 6 of the ’11 Series – the often-overlooked comeback that gave Freese a chance to be the hero one inning later. It was Descalso’s two-run, bases-loaded, ninth-inning single off Drew Storen that tied the decisive Game 5 against the Nationals last year.
Friday, it was his pinch-hit bloop single into center that sparked the 13th-inning rally. When Beltran lined his sharp single to right, Descalso scored the winning run.
He’s the Scott Brosius of this group.
“I’ve been in big spots like that before,” Descalso told me on the field after the game in an interview for FOX Sports 1. “I’m just going up there trying to get on base for the top of the order any way I can. I was able to work the count full and just get enough of that ball to get it into center field.
“We like to play in those dramatic games, (when) the pressure’s on. We’ve got guys that want to be up there and on the mound and come through in those clutch spots. That’s been the story for us the last couple years.”
• For further evidence of the growing Cardinals’ postseason mythology, consider the words of Dodgers infielder Nick Punto. He played on the Cardinals’ championship team in 2011. "Carlos Beltran with that big hit, the place erupted – it definitely had signs of David Freese in 2011,” Punto told me afterward.
• Dodgers manager Don Mattingly is being second-guessed after Game 1, and I’m not sure he deserves it. The Dodgers didn’t lose because of him. They lost because they totaled only five hits over the final 10 innings of Game 1 – and never more than one in an inning.
I didn’t have a problem with Mattingly using Dee Gordon as a pinch runner for Adrian Gonzalez in the eighth inning. I did, however, take issue with Gordon not breaking to second base on a steal attempt on any of the three pitches to the next hitter, Yasiel Puig. When Gordon was forced out at second on Puig’s fielder’s choice, the move went for naught.
• As for the controversy on whether Yadier Molina actually tagged Ellis when he tried to score on Michael Young’s fly ball to right, Ellis said it was “obvious” that he was out. So that’s that.
• The biggest out of the game might have come in the first inning. The Dodgers had runners on second and third with one out after Kelly’s wild pitch, but Gonzalez was unable to deliver a run-scoring single or sacrifice fly – two of his specialties. After a well-timed mound visit by Molina, Kelly fanned Gonzalez and Puig to end the inning.
“He just told me to relax,” Kelly said of his conversation with Molina. “I was a little pumped up, a little amped up. He just told me to stay within myself. My stuff was good today, he said. Just trust it and go after these guys.”
As usual, Molina’s greatest contribution to a St. Louis win wasn’t found in the box score.