ST. LOUIS — Even with his long-awaited place in the World Series finally secured, Carlos Beltran appeared as cool as ever.
You would think after 16 seasons and more than 2,000 games, and after coming within one victory of the World Series on three different occasions, he might act a little crazy.
But when the Cardinals’ 9-0 NLCS-clinching victory over the Dodgers was complete, Beltran ran onto the field, hugged some teammates and started with the interviews. A couple of minutes later, he sought out his wife, gathered his two daughters and joined his teammates in the on-field trophy presentation.
For sure, he was happy but he remained as much in control as he had been in the third inning when he smoked a 94 mph fastball from the game’s best pitcher into right field to drive in the Cardinals’ first run.
“As cool as the under side of the pillow, always,” Adam Wainwright said. “He’s the smoothest man I’ve ever met.”
But Beltran was more excited on this day than he looked. Ask his wife, Jessica. She woke up in the middle of the night Thursday, turned over and saw her husband laying on his back, wide awake, pretending to be holding a baseball bat.
”What are you doing,” Jessica asked. “He was like, ‘I’m practicing my grip.'”
She added, “I think it paid off, right?”
No doubt. Beltran not only drove in the game’s first run, he finished with three hits, two RBI and a highlight-worthy catch in right field. In the best win of his life, he was a difference-maker. It all started with his middle-of-the-night vision.
“I’m thinking about the game, thinking about what I need to do and envisioning in my mind having success,” Beltran said. “You can’t sleep in the playoffs. I think about the game, I envision myself having success before it happens. Hopefully, all the positive you put into your brain, you think about it and hopefully you can come through.
“Today, more than what I was thinking came true.”
And it came, no less, against Dodgers lefthander Clayton Kershaw, the game’s best pitcher. The Cardinals already had beaten him three times this season, including last Saturday’s Game 2, a fourth win in one season against the certain Cy Young winner seemed improbable.
Until the third inning. With one out in a scoreless game, leadoff hitter Matt Carpenter and Kershaw hooked up in a confrontation that will not be forgotten in St. Louis for a long time. After a first-pitch ball, Carpenter fouled off seven consecutive pitches. “He kept throwing nasty stuff,” Carpenter said. Then came ball two followed by another foul.
“Every pitch I fouled off, the crowd got louder and louder,” Carpenter said. “That sharpened my focus. I know he’s the best pitcher in baseball and I know he’s not going to give in, either.”
Finally, on the 11th pitch, Kershaw missed with a slider and Carpenter lined a double into right field.
“I was just trying not to strike out,” Carpenter said. “He struck me out the first at-bat. He got ahead of me again. I was like, ‘I’m not striking out. I’m putting this ball in play somehow.’ I just kept trying to stay short and foul pitches off. I was able to do it.”
Then came Beltran, the game’s best postseason hitter over the past 10 years.
“Watching him fighting for that at-bat and being able to come through, I went there with the same mentality,” Beltran said. “I just need to fight right now. I was seeing him good. I was able to relax and look for a good pitch. Normally, I don’t hit the baseball to the opposite field from the right side but this time I was able to stay inside and did it. (Second baseman Mark) Ellis almost made a good play but when I saw that ball go into right field, I’m so happy. I was able to get a run out of this guy who is so tough.”
The Cardinals were just getting going. They would force Kershaw to make 48 pitches in the inning while batting around and taking a 4-0 lead.
“Towards the end of that inning, I think he got tired,” Carpenter said. “He was a little worn down.”
Two innings later, the Cardinals batted around again and scored five more runs, the last driven in by the same man who drove in the first, Beltran. With the victory virtually secured, Mike Matheny pulled Beltran in the eighth to allow him time to digest what was going down. Then it was over and Beltran ran onto the field.
“It’s a dream come true,” he said. ” I’m thinking about how hard I have fought through my career. I think about my family, my dad, my mom. I think about my people, my country, my town where I grew up. Everybody there has helped me to be who I am right now. I know they feel proud and it’s a great feeling.”
An hour after the game ended, Beltran still was holding court inside the champagne-drenched clubhouse, as patient and professional with the media as always. A few feet away, Jessica was checking her phone and watching the celebration.
“He hasn’t stopped smiling,” she said of her husband.
The next time she wakes up in the middle of the night, he probably still will be.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.