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Thursday, October 18, 2012

Cards win without Beltran but will need him later

Cards win without Beltran but will need him later

In their latest emergency, the Cardinals watched Carlos Beltran make an abrupt, alarming departure after his first inning at-bat in Game 3.
Matt Carpenter answered the 911 call and picked up a bat. Unlike other emergency responders, Carpenter did not wear gloves, but he saved Game 3 by booming the winning two-run homer in the Cardinals’ 3-1 victory over the San Francisco Giants.
This was one day, one at-bat, one test, one more thrill for Carpenter. His parents, Rick and Tammie, were in the stands to see the big moment. The Cardinals grabbed a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven NL championship series.
It was a nice story, but could it last? Beltran wasn’t ready to start Game 4 Thursday night, and the Cardinals’ lineup could feel the pain of his strained left knee. Beltran has been the team’s best player this postseason, batting .400 and ripping extra-base hits from the Washington Monument to the Golden Gate Bridge.
Beltran’s two-run homer gave the Cardinals a 6-0 lead in the top of the fourth inning of Game 1 at AT&T Park. But in the 22 innings that followed, through the end of Game 3, they had scored only four runs and were batting .145 (11 for 76). And now Beltran would be out, taking his potent onbase capability and prolific postseason power to the trainer’s room.
What would the Cardinals do now?
Well, manager Mike Matheny would write Carpenter’s name in the lineup for Game 4, and he would walk and score the first run off Giants starter Tim Lincecum. The Cardinals would hang two runs on Lincecum in the first, and banish him to the clubhouse in the sixth.
The Cardinals would spray hits, and they would run the bases. They would start to feel warmer as the chilled bats of Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina began to heat up. They would keep tacking on runs until the score reached a safe, comfortable, happy and final 8-3.
The Cardinals would miss Beltran, yes. But the home team wouldn’t miss an opportunity to bust open this game. They wouldn’t miss a chance to emerge from multiple batting slumps, and renew their very special relationship with line-drive base hits. They would not betray a superb start by Adam Wainwright.
The Cardinals would show, once again, that they can handle just about anything negative that’s put on them – the latest being Beltran’s damaged knee, and the sudden anxiety that settled in when he limped into dugout.
In one of the finest all-around team performances of the season, the Cardinals seized a 3-1 lead in this best-of-seven series, and can capture another National League pennant with a victory in Game 5 tonight.
We don’t know if Beltran will play in Game 5. But we do know that the Cardinals have managed to keep up the pressure, and the winning, during his two-game absence. This is what the Cardinals have been doing all year: get hit with a bad break, shake it off, and find a way to overcome it.
Carpenter followed his Wednesday rescue by doubling, walking twice, and scoring two runs in the Game 4 blowout. Holliday, Molina and Jon Jay each drove in two runs. Allen Craig is still searching for his swing, but he did get in a run with a sacrifice fly. Pete Kozma had two hits, and an RBI.
Eight Cardinals had hits, seven scored runs, and five had at least one run batted in. They did all of this without homering. It was just a steady, solid, resourceful attack.
I don’t know how long the Cardinals can continue to rack up the runs and push through for victories without Beltran. At some point they’ll need him, and it may be sooner than later. But their initial response to his injury has been encouraging. But it isn’t surprising. The Cardinals have been coping with these baseball crises since spring training. And they do not panic.
The knee has tormented Beltran, 35, for the past several years and caused him to miss a substantial number of games in 2009 and 2010. Now the knee is flaring again, at the worst time of the season.
At least there’s Carpenter to fill the void. In 66 games as a starter during the regular season, Carpenter batted .308 with a .382 onbase percentage and a .490 slugging pct.
That said, the Cardinals’ best chance to go all the way to a World Series and a trophy is with Beltran batting second. The longer Beltran is out, the more difficult it becomes to win without him.
Beltran is one of the best postseason hitters in major-league history. In 31 career postseason games he’s batted .375 with a .486 onbase percentage and an .830 slugging percentage. He has 14 homers in only 112 at-bats.
Beltran has been the Cardinals top gun this postseason, batting .400 with a combined onbase-slugging percentage of 1.353. That’s hard to replace, even with someone as capable as Carpenter.
A secondary concern is the team’s depth. Beltran may be able to pinch hit, but with Carpenter in the lineup the Cardinals’ bench is weakened.
Matheny said it was "too early to tell" about Beltran’s availability for Game 5. Matheny knows it’s useless to issue predictions on Beltran’s chronic knee. The uncertainty is something the Cardinals and Beltran have lived with all season. And they’ll have to deal with it again in 2013.
The Cardinals were aware of the risk when they signed Beltran to a two-year deal for $26 million last winter. He was surprisingly durable during the regular season, but did hit .201 over a span of 250 plate appearances after the All-Star break.
Just as Beltran comes alive again, the knee goes out. The Cardinals and Beltran are in a tough spot here. The temptation is to play him. But push too hard and a setback could knock him out of the postseason. But Beltran’s presence is so valuable to this lineup, it’s tempting to play him as soon as possible. But caution seems wise. And before Game 4, Beltran said he can swing a bat, but isn’t ready to patrol the outfield.
Matheny is largely deferring to Beltran, and that’s smart.
"He’s a good evaluator of his health and what he can and can’t do," Matheny said. "And I know right now obviously we have an urgency and he knows that as well as anybody. He’s going to push it if he can. And he’s going to try to get out there, if at all possible. We’ll find out from day to day."
Beltran was signed as a de facto replacement for Albert Pujols, who signed a 10-year, $240 million free-agent contract with the Angels. Given the vast difference in the size of the contract, it’s been a positive tradeoff for the Cardinals. Including the postseason, Beltran is hitting .276 with 35 homers and 103 RBIs in 577 at-bats this season.
"We are two different ballplayers," Beltran said earlier this postseason when asked about the challenge of replacing Pujols. "I just told myself I can’t go there and get caught up in this comparison. I have to be me and play the game the way I always play, focus on realistic goals."
Unfortunately, the Cardinals don’t have Pujols or Beltran. They do have Holliday, Molina, Craig and Jay. They do have Matt Carpenter. And that’s not bad, not bad at all.

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