ST. LOUIS — Carlos Beltran hit the monster homer and Adam Wainwright delivered the dominant start for the St. Louis Cardinals Thursday afternoon.
But as Wainwright dissected the 9-1 victory over the Pirates in the NL Division Series, third baseman David Freese was the player he called, “St. Louis’ version of Mr. October.”
“He doesn’t need to be saying that,” Freese said.
But the label fits. While this Game 1 victory belonged to Wainwright and Beltran, the hometown hero of the 2011 postseason indeed was up to his old tricks on a day that could not have gone any better for the home team. Three batters after Beltran slugged a three-run, 443-foot homer off A.J. Burnett, Freese cleared the bases with a single down the right-field line and the rout was on.
Though Burnett had faced 15 batters and nine had reached when Freese came up, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle decided not to go to his bullpen. “We felt that we were going to give him that last hitter, Freese, get the ground ball double play and keep the game where it was,” Hurdle said.
Burnett got a grounder from Freese all right but the placement was not where the Pirates needed. Three feet to the left and first baseman Justin Morneau might have stopped it and started a double play. Considering how frustrating the regular season went for Freese, the ball might not have gone through a month ago. But this is October, when the ball so often seems to bounce the right way for Freese and his team.
“Sometimes you don’t need to stick it perfectly to get it through the infield,” Freese said. “It was nice to get that thing into the outfield.”
The two RBIs — the third run scored as the result of one of the Pirates’ three errors — gave him 27 in 32 postseason games. With another single in a 2-for-4 day, Freese lifted his postseason batting average to .351, second-best in franchise history to Lou Brock (.391).
As disappointing as was Freese’s regular season, he put his individual disappointments aside and maintained a team-first attitude. It wasn’t easy, either. He hit only .261 after three seasons of finishing in the .290s and his nine homers were less than half of last season’s career-best 20. He lost his everyday job for a spell in the second half and has had to answer questions about an uncertain future with the Cardinals because of his rising salary and the young players coming.
Undoubtedly, he is happy to enter a time of year when he has enjoyed his greatest success.
“You get fired up for this stuff,” Freese said. “You work so hard for six months to be part of an October run. That’s a special thing. You go out there and soak it all in but you treat it like a normal game.”
Well, one aspect of his post-game routine wasn’t quite normal. Freese kept the media waiting at his locker because he was having trouble producing the necessary liquid for a random drug test. “They’re going to be sticking around for a while,” he said, his task still not completed as he took a break to talk with reporters.
Besides his prowess at the plate, Freese turned in a defensive gem when he snared a line drive falling to his left. “I think the ump had it fair if it went off my mitt,” Freese said. “It might have hooked foul if I didn’t touch it. You have to make plays like that. These games are going to be tight.”
The Cardinals, of course, are accustomed to coming through at this time of year. They won the 2011 World Series after twice being a strike away from being finished. They rallied from six runs down to win Game 5 of the 2012 NL Division Series. They came back from 4-0 to beat Cliff Lee in the 2011 NLDS when the Phillies were supposed to be unbeatable.
Ask the Cardinals how they manage all this and they shrug. They are so used to playing with the stakes high that it becomes easier to treat the postseason games like any others. Yet they can see around them. They know this time of year is different. Wainwright talked about how “fired up” he got driving to work Thursday and seeing all the tailgaters outside of Busch Stadium.
“You know what these fans are going to be like for you,” Freese said. “They’ve got your back. People live for this.”
Maybe even a little beyond their means at times. “A lot of my friends talk about how their checking accounts diminish in October because everybody is running around, having a great time watching us play in October,” Freese said.
They did on Thursday, thanks to Wainwright, Beltran and St. Louis’ own Mr. October.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.