Carlos Beltran's three-run homer gave the Cardinals a big lead that they never relinquished. (Jeff Roberson/AP)
He is a borderline Hall-of-Famer, a former Rookie of the Year, an eight-time All-Star and one of baseball’s greatest switch-hitters. And yet Carlos Beltran is rarely mentioned as one of the game’s greats. This was a typical year for Beltran, now 36 and in his 16th season. He put up his usual numbers -- a .296 average with a .491 slugging percentage, and 24 home runs. He played through injuries. He was one of the best players on the best team in the National League -- but, of course, you didn’t hear much about Carlos Beltran this season because … well, he’s Carlos Beltran.
In Game 1 of the NL Division Series in St. Louis, the Cardinals right fielder stepped up to the plate in the third inning to face Pirates starter AJ Burnett with two men on and ripped a three-run home run into the second deck at Busch Stadium, a majestic 443-foot shot that was the second longest home run ever hit in the ballpark by a left-handed hitter.
Beltran’s three-run homer was the biggest hit in St. Louis’ 9-1 win over Pittsburgh. It was also a hit that reminded us that the Cardinals -- along with their formidable rotation and deep lineup -- have one of the game’s great postseason players. After going 1-for-5 last night, Beltran is hitting .357/.455/.783 for his career in the playoffs. He has 15 postseason home runs, tied with Babe Ruth for the most in history. Beltran also has the highest career postseason slugging percentage and OPS (1.238). His ridiculous 20-for-46 romp with the Astros in the 2004 NL playoffs is one of the great October performances of all time. With first baseman Allen Craig likely out for the rest of the postseason with a foot sprain, Beltran might be the player to carry St. Louis back to the World Series.
Beyond Beltran’s homer, this was an impressive win for the Cardinals. Starter Adam Wainwright was dominant (one run allowed with 9 Ks in seven innings) and the offense, which led the league in runs this season, was powerful and effective. Much has been made about St. Louis' success with runners in scoring position this season (they hit .330 with RISP, shattering the record held by the 1950 Red Sox), and the magic continued Thursday. The Cardinals went 2-for-4 with two walks and six RBIs with runners in scoring position in the third inning. The seven runs they scored in the frame set a record for the most in an NLDS game.
The Pirates’ unraveling began with a walk. Wainwright did not walk once in 71 regular season at-bats, but facing Burnett to lead off the third, the right-hander walked on eight pitches. Matt Carpenter followed with a single. Next came Beltran and his home run, and the rout was on.
Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle has one of the quickest hooks in baseball when it comes to his starters, so it was strange to see him keep Burnett in the game long after it was clear that the right-hander had far from his best stuff. Burnett threw 37 pitches in the third and didn’t record a single out. Swingman Jeanmar Gomez has been excellent this season, but by the time Hurdle turned to the righty to relieve Burnett, the Pirates were already down 7-0.
The takeaway from Game 1? St. Louis could be just fine without Craig. Cardinals GM John Mozeliak told 920-AM in St. Louis that Craig is unlikely to play again in the postseason. With their offensive explosion in Game 1, the Cardinals nevertheless showed that they still have plenty of firepower without him.
Of course the series is far from over. If Pittsburgh can win Game 2 -- St. Louis' Lance Lynn faces the Pirates' Gerrit Cole -- it will be in good shape heading back to PNC Park, where ace Francisco Liriano is set to take the mound, and chants of “KELLL-LLLYYY” most certainly await Cardinals rookie starter Joe Kelly in Game 3. The Pirates are still in it. But St. Louis showed that it will be formidable this October -- especially if its underappreciated star keeps hitting like Babe Ruth.