ST. LOUIS – Mike Matheny and the Cardinals know first hand what a hot Carlos Beltran can mean to a team in the playoffs. And they hope to see it happen again.
Beltran continued a recent surge at the plate Sunday, launching two home runs and collecting five RBI to help the Cardinals knock off the Washington Nationals 9-4 at Busch Stadium.
The win dropped the Cardinals magic number to clinch the second wild card spot in the National League to 2. It also reinforced how dangerous and impactful a productive Beltran can be.
“Days like today remind us just how good is,” Matheny said. “It’s fun to watch when he gets everything going. Now is a perfect time.”
A catcher on the Cardinals in 2004, Matheny watched from behind the plate as Beltran went 10-for-24, hit four home runs and scored 12 runs for the Houston Astros in the National League Championship Series against the Cardinals.
Two years later in 2006, the switch-hitting Beltran had eight hits, three home runs and scored eight runs for the New York Mets in another seven-game series loss to the Cardinals in the NLCS.
And after nearly willing his teams into the World Series by himself, Beltran hopes to get hot again and propel the same team he couldn’t beat deep into October this year.
“The reason why I came here was I felt like I was going to have the opportunity to play for a ring,” Beltran said. “This team has done it before, a lot of guys here have done it before, so I think we’re in a good spot.
“It’s always good to have a day like today but this is not about one day. It’s about being able to go out there and win ballgames. Its not about me its about the team.”
Said David Freese, who grew up in St. Louis and was attending community college in town when Beltran tore apart his Cardinals in 2004, “It was a joke. That type of guy, you just see his swing, and that’s what I remember watching way back then was his swing and how easy the game looked.
“Now eight years later, more than once you say that to yourself again, ‘This game just looks easy to him.’ When he’s going good, it’s pretty simple. He can carry a team, absolutely. That’s why he’s a $100 million guy. He can carry a team.”
The Cardinals signed Beltran to a 2-year, $26 million contract in the offseason with the money they saved by not re-signing first baseman Albert Pujols. And the veteran couldn’t have gotten off to a better start, hitting .313 with 20 home runs and 57 RBI in his first 71 games of the season dating to June 25.
But he couldn’t have been much worse since. Beltran entered Sunday’s game hitting just .221 with only 10 home runs and 34 RBI in 76 games since.
He’s dealt with nagging injuries to his knees throughout the season but maintained recently that he feels healthy and strong enough to play. His struggles, he said, were mechanical and timing adjustments and had nothing to do with his health.
“It’s great to see for him,” Matheny said. “He’s been working so hard. The guy cares so much and sometimes it doesn’t translate to how he goes about it with such a workmanlike attitude and it’s really been bothering him that he hasn’t been able to step up and contribute.
“You could see he was almost just trying to force something earlier. He was jumping and the ball was barely out of the pitcher’s hand he was committed to swinging instead of just trusting. His game, less is more and he’s such a smooth player when everything is right. “
After promising multiple times that he’d eventually get going, he’s finally starting to do it. Beltran had just two home runs during a stretch of 141 at-bats dating back to August 11, but he hit two home runs in two at-bats Sunday.
Beltran launched a two-run homer to left while batting right-handed in the second inning and added another two-run shot batting left-handed in the fourth inning. He also singled home another run in the eighth, finishing 3-for-4 with two home runs and five RBI.
The 35-year-old Beltran is now 17-for-48 in his last 15 games, good for a .354 average. As he continues his quest for his first World Series ring, he appears to be gaining momentum at the plate at just the right time.
“You’re going to go through good stretches and bad stretches,” Beltran said. “I try not to focus on that. I try to focus on the work that I do and coming to the ballpark and preparing myself. I approach the game every single day with the mentality of going out there and doing good for the team. Some days it happens and some days it doesn’t.
“It’s always good to have a day like today but tomorrow is another day.”
Added Freese, “He’s doing what we expected him to do, be a core guy and hit in the middle of the lineup and do damage. Obviously we’re happy he’s on our team but what he did today was special.”
The Cardinals hope Beltran has plenty of special days left.