ST. LOUIS -- St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny seemed amused when I asked him about how he accounts for the postseason similarities between Carlos Beltran and Babe Ruth.
"Well, how to account for it is, he's a great player," Matheny said as we spoke prior to the Cardinals' 3-2 win over the Dodgers on Friday in Game 1 of the NLCS, a 13-inning game that ultimately stood largely as a shrine to Beltran. "You know, you start throwing him into categories with Babe Ruth, that's kind of uncharted territory."
I mean, it is, right? We've all seen Carlos Beltran, seen that he's human, seen him strike out. And Babe Ruth, he's more myth than ball player, a Paul Bunyan we've watched on highlight reels, where all he does is homer, then pumps those skinny legs in double time around the bases.
Moreover, Beltran has enjoyed a fantastic major league career, with an .854 career OPS while playing stellar defense for much of his career in center field, but come on. Babe Ruth? The Sultan of Swat? 714 home runs! A 1.164 career OPS!
And Ruth was every bit as good in the World Series. In 129 plate appearances, he slugged .744, posted an OPS of 1.211 and hit 15 home runs. He was, in October, almost exactly the Babe Ruth he was during the regular season. He didn't raise his game any, nor did he have to. He was Babe Freaking Ruth.
Here's the thing: in October, so is Carlos Beltran. He entered the NLCS with 148 postseason plate appearances, enough to put aside the idea this is some kind of fluke series. He's hit 16 home runs. He's slugged .750. He's posted an OPS of 1.199. It's eerie how Beltran hasn't just equaled Ruth in value, he's doing it in virtually the same way.
Still, Matheny wasn't having any of it Friday afternoon.
"What he's been able to do, the stats speak for themselves," Matheny said. "So he's gonna compare with the people he's gonna compare with. But for us ... as we're trying to get these guys ready, we definitely don't try to put Babe Ruth comparisons into these guys' minds."
And that makes sense, you know, for the 24 other Cardinals who aren't channeling Ruth's postseason.
But avoiding such comparisons got harder after Beltran drove in the first two runs in the third inning to tie the game, crushing a Zack Greinke two-seamer on a night when no one else did.
It got harder after Beltran, patrolling right field, waved off center fielder Jon Jay on a would-be sacrifice fly from Michael Young, firing a throw that beat Mark Ellis to the plate by five feet to keep the game tied in the 10th inning.
And it got harder still when Beltran ended the night in the 13th inning with a line drive into the right-field corner off of Kenley Jansen, the best reliever the Dodgers have, sending a worn-out, delirious Cardinals crowd home with a Ruthian-sized memory of how Carlos Beltran plays baseball.
When it was over, if Beltran has any secrets about how he manages to consistently excel in the postseason, he wasn't spilling them, not to us. He made it all sound so ordinary.
"I try not to keep up with the numbers, because when you try to keep up with the numbers, you could get caught out there, trying to do a lot of bad things," Beltran said, reflecting on the October career he's had so far. "Trying to look for homers, and trying to change your approach. I know, I'm aware of what I have done."
Each component of the night had a typical thoughtful Beltran reasoning, an intelligent approach that nevertheless also required his skills to convert that knowledge into success on the field. Take that double off of Greinke in the third, for instance.
"I knew that today was going to be a very difficult day," Beltran said. "Because Greinke, he's a good pitcher. And after my first at-bat, I went to the video room, looking to where his pitchers were, because to me, they felt like they were outside. And they were right on the edges for strikes. So I'll say I was glad I had a little idea about how they were trying to pitch me, so I was looking for a pitch out there."
That 3-1 changeup Beltran wanted came, and moments later, the game was tied.
The same presence of mind led to Beltran's great throw in the 10th.
"As soon as Michael Young hit the baseball, I felt that I was going to have a better angle than Jon Jay," Beltran said. "So I called for the ball, about five, six times, and Jon Jay was able to hear me and leave it up to me."
It's worth considering that for Beltran to make that decision, he needed to see the entire field in his head at the instant the ball was hit -- where it was going, who was playing center field, what would allow the Cardinals to keep the go-ahead run from scoring, and how to position himself to make the throw. He did, and then he made a glorious throw.
Three innings later, he managed to force Jansen, a pitcher who walked 18 hitters and struck out 111, into a 3-1 count, knowing Jansen would have to come after him, with two on and Matt Holliday on deck.
"I was trying to get a good pitch to hit," Beltran explained, simply. "I know Jansen is a good closer, and he's capable of making a lot of pitches for strikes. He made a good pitch, a backdoor cutter for a strike, and after that he tried to make me chase some cutters in the dirt. And I was able to let those go, get into a hitter's count. Once I was in a hitter's count, I was looking for a pitch to hit, because I knew he was going to throw a pitch that I was going to be able to hit."
See, that's the thing: Carlos Beltran knew how to work an at-bat to his advantage, which took the intelligence of his approach. But plenty of people can game out an at-bat. Carlos Beltran, in October, takes those situations where he has the advantage and maximizes them, again and again.
Amazingly enough, Beltran's teams have never qualified for the World Series, despite his heroics. This feels like a different sort of year, with appreciation for his accomplishments reaching ever-higher levels. But nothing is guaranteed, the Dodgers are a very talented team. He's three wins away now, but he's been even closer as recently as last year, just one win away then, as well as in 2004 and 2006.
So when I asked Matheny again after the game whether he was surprised on the occasions when Beltran doesn't come through -- though I considered asking him whether he still thought my Babe Ruth comparison was so silly -- he talked in terms of his team as a whole, which makes sense. His job is to get to the World Series and win it, not to build a Carlos Beltran Appreciation Society.
"As far as my expectations, I expect all these guys to come through for us," Matheny said. "We've seen them do it all season long. Different guys step in, and it's not just on Carlos. It's not going to be just Carlos."
But Friday night, not for the first time, and probably not for the last time, it was.
Someday, Carlos Beltran highlights are going to look as ancient as Babe Ruth highlights do to us, and uniformly successful, all home runs and game-winning hits and epic throws. Another baseball player might even put together a postseason record like this. And a manager will laugh if a reporter throws out a comparison between that flesh and blood player and the legendary Carlos Beltran.