BOSTON -- Over the span of 13 months in 1997 and '98, Carlos Beltran, Torii Hunter and David Ortiz all made their major league debuts for AL Central teams (Beltran with the Royals, Hunter and Ortiz with the Twins). But while each player went on to careers filled with fame and fortune -- not to mention numerous All-Star Game invitations -- only Ortiz had played in a World Series, winning championships in 2004 and '07. Neither Beltran nor Hunter, right fielders for the Cardinals and the Tigers, respectively, had ever played in a Fall Classic.
Until Wednesday night, that is, when Beltran came to bat in the first inning of Game 1. Of the three men, only Hunter has not played in a World Series.
But the hole in Hunter's résumé hasn't kept the three from sharing another inadvertent link. And it's all on account of two eerily similar postseason fly balls. Twice this fall, Ortiz -- certainly one of the most celebrated postseason heros of the 21st century -- has batted with the bases loaded and driven a ball toward the Fenway Park bullpens, and twice Hunter and Beltran have chased the ball to the wall and beyond.
In the bottom of the eighth inning in Game 2 of the ALCS, Hunter just missed making the catch, flipping over the wall and into the bullpen. After the game, he said that the collision and the fall had knocked the wind out of him and bruised his hip, but he had otherwise emerged unscathed. "Torii always scares me," Ortiz said that night of his former Minnesota teammate. "I grew up playing with Torii. He's one of the best outfielders I ever saw in my life."
WATCH: Hunter flips over wall in pursuit of Ortiz's grand slam
The blast by Ortiz tied the game at 5-5 and Boston eventually won the game with another run in the bottom of the ninth. If not for that victory, the Red Sox would have gone to Detroit down 2-0 in the series; instead, they were tied 1-1 and went on to win the pennant in six games.
In Game 1 of the World Series on Wednesday night, Beltran did what Hunter could not. With one out in the bottom of the second inning, Ortiz hit another long fly to right. Beltran kept his eyes on the ball as he sprinted back to the warning track, reached into the bullpen and robbed Ortiz of his second postseason grand slam in as many series. As incredibly, Beltran held on to the ball even as his right side hit the wall. "Wow, nice play, man," Ortiz said of Beltran's catch after the game. "Hopefully he's doing well."
Beltran saved three runs on what went into the box score as just a sacrifice fly for Ortiz, but the St. Louis right fielder paid a price. He stayed on the field for the final out of the inning, and then exited the game with what was initially diagnosed as a rib contusion. Beltran was taken to a local hospital for testing, and after the game Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak reported that both a CT scan and an x-ray had shown nothing. (Beltran did not speak to reporters.)
WATCH: Beltran hits wall while robbing Big Papi of grand slam
"Right now it's just a day-to-day situation," Mozeliak said. "We'll see how he feels tomorrow, but right now he basically has a severe rib bruise."
Just like that, after 2,109 major-league games, Beltran's remarkable journey to the World Series was nearly derailed for good. He signed with St. Louis as a free agent last December, giving himself a chance to compete on baseball's biggest stage. As one of the sport's stars, as well as one of its truly good guys, Beltran deserves to compete in this showcase for more than just two innings.
How Beltran feels in the morning will dictate whether he plays in tonight's Game 2 and, if so, how well he'll be able to perform. It's hard to imagine, however, that he can return to full strength just 24 hours after a trip to the emergency room. The Dodgers' Hanley Ramirez, after all, suffered broken ribs on the very first pitch he saw in this year's NLCS. He remained in the game -- which the Cardinals won on a walk-off hit by Beltran -- but didn't play in Game 2 before starting the next four games. Ramirez seemed diminished at the plate as the series wore on, going only 2-for-15 as L.A lost to St. Louis.
It would rob fans of one of the most anticipated matchups of the Series if the same were to happen to Beltran, who, like Ortiz, is a dangerous postseason hitter. Ortiz busted out of a lengthy October slump with two hits and a home run in Game 1 on Wednesday night. In his previous eight playoff games this year, dating back to a two-homer night in Game 2 of the ALDS, he had batted just .148, and his grand slam against the Tigers was his only extra-base hit. The home run Ortiz hit in the seventh inning on Wednesday off of Cardinals reliever Kevin Siegrist was the 16th of his postseason career, tying him with Beltran on the all-time list.
After the game, nobody in the St. Louis clubhouse wanted to dwell on the possibility that Beltran, a .337 hitter in 45 postseason games, might be out for the series. "I don't want to go too far down that road," said first baseman Allen Craig, who returned as the Cardinals' DH in Game 1 after his own long injury-related absence. "I don't know how he's doing, but hopefully he'll be out there tomorrow." Mozeliak said he was "somewhat optimistic" that Beltran might play in Game 2.
If Beltran doesn't play, St. Louis will struggle to replace its No. 2 hitter, especially because the Cardinals' otherwise deep roster is already struggling to compensate for Craig's reduced state. After missing more than a month with a foot injury, he went 1-for-4 in Game 1, but was clearly hobbled and did not appear to be his normal self.
With Beltran's out, Jon Jay entered the game in center field, pushing Shane Robinson from center to right. Both of those players are adept at reaching base -- with OBPs of .345 or better this season -- but while Beltran hit a team-leading 24 home runs in 2013, Robinson is mostly a singles hitter and Jay packs only slightly more pop. In Game 1, Jay went 0-for-2 with a walk; Robinson was 1-for-3 with a single.
It's hard to overlook the coincidence that St. Louis right-hander Adam Wainwright was on the mound when Beltran was injured. It was Wainwright's devastating curveball that Beltran, then with the Mets, took for strike three to end Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS.
Wainwright said earlier this week that he doesn't ever mention the pitch to Beltran but said that the right fielder's wife approached him for a photograph of her husband with the pitcher after the Cardinals beat the Dodgers last week to secure the NL pennant. "Back then it wasn't in the Lord's plan and now it is," Beltran's wife said at the time, as relayed by Wainwright.
Wainwright then told another story about a bad dream he had had the day before St. Louis' clinching win in Game 6 of the NLCS.
"I had a dream the day before that we lost," Wainwright said, "and we didn't get to the World Series, and we weren't the team to get him there. And he ended up signing with the Yankees next year. And the Yankees took him to the World Series. . . . It was a nightmare."
What happened to Beltran on Wednesday night wasn't quite that dire, but it was close.
World Series Game 1 recap: Red Sox vs. Cardinals
Tom Verducci recaps Game 1 of the World Series, an 8-1 Boston victory highlighted by a David Ortiz
home run and multiple errors by the Cardinals