Embracing the October stage

SAN FRANCISCO -- There's no secret handshake that gets you into the Mr. October Club. No annual fee. No exclusive invitation dropped at your door by the UPS man.

Nope, there's only one way to get yourself into the Mr. October Club:

You do what Carlos Beltran and David Freese did Sunday on a picturesque autumn evening at AT&T Park -- and then you never stop doing it.

Whatever it is that makes men rise to meet these huge October moments, Carlos Beltran and David Freese seem to have discovered it, fed on it, practically patented it.

And in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series, they did it again.

Freese -- the MVP of the only other league championship series he'd ever played in before this one -- pounded a two-run homer in the second inning. Beltran -- who continues to build one of the great bodies of October work in baseball history -- unloaded the 14th postseason home run of his lifetime two innings later.

And the rest of this story is going to sound familiar, because those relentless St. Louis Cardinals just keep riding that October wave.

The scoreboard on this night read: Cardinals 6, Giants 4. And with every dazzling October show the Cardinals unleash on one more team that won a lot more games than they won this season, they remind us that when the postseason rolls around, if you're judging them by their regular-season record, you're missing the essence of what they are now.

"People are going to look at the Cardinals and they're going to say, 'Well, they only won 88 games, and they were just the second wild card,'" said their favorite injured philosopher-witticist, Lance Berkman. "But really, if we'd had this team for the entire season, we'd have won 100 games easy, and I think we would have won the division no problem."

And it's harder to argue with that theory than you might think. This team has Chris Carpenter back in the rotation, meaning that even after losing Jaime Garcia for the season, the Cardinals still have Carpenter, Kyle Lohse and Adam Wainwright lined up to start the next three games. That'll work.

This team isn't the bullpen-challenged mess that helped sabotage the first half of this Cardinals season. Not with Trevor Rosenthal rocking triple digits every time out. Not with Joe Kelly firing 97-mph laser beams. Not with Edward Mujica taking personal ownership of the seventh inning.

And then there's that lineup. Pretty … tough … group.

Especially this time of year, when the teams that can score against good pitching separate themselves from the pack.

Albert Pujols doesn't work here anymore. You might have noticed that. Berkman's knees don't allow him to play anymore. You might have noticed that, too. So you'd think this team might miss them -- seeing as how they were only the No. 3 and No. 4 hitters on the team that won the last World Series.

But Freese is still around, spewing those monstrous October hits, game after game after game. And Beltran has joined this band, trying to hitch his first ride on the World Series Express. And when they do their thing, when they do what they did Sunday night, you find yourself thinking stupid thoughts like: "Albert who?"

When Freese lined a Madison Bumgarner fastball over the 382-foot sign in deep left-center Sunday, it gave the Cardinals a 2-0 lead they would never lose their grip on. But it also gave us a chance to step back and reflect on what a remarkable October showman he has been these last two years.

He's now played 25 postseason baseball games -- and driven in 25 runs. Only one man in history ever drove in more in his first 25 games -- a gentleman named Lou Gehrig.

Freese's eye-popping postseason line looks like this: .386/.440/.739/.1.179. And his numbers in his seven NLCS games are ridiculous: .500/.552/.1077/1.629. Among players with as many LCS at-bats as he has had (26) or more, he ranks No. 1 in every one of those categories: average, on-base percentage, slugging, OPS.

There's a reason for that, friends, beyond pure talent. He has learned, at a young age, that the postseason is a time to, in his own words, "embrace" the challenge of October.

"You know, the regular season is such a grind," he said. "You get caught up, obviously, in wanting to win. But you also can get caught up in wanting your numbers. But when you get to the postseason, you sit back and say, 'Man, this is fun. And you want to live to [play] the next day. And there's nothing better than that.'"

For Carlos Beltran, meanwhile, there isn't an experience in his career he would trade for the season he has spent with this team. He has been a gigantic part of what the Cardinals have become and where they've lifted themselves. But he still finds himself in, well, awe of what he has seen the men around him do -- starting with the unforgettable rally from six runs down Friday night in D.C.

"I didn't sleep that night," he said Sunday, two days after that postseason comeback for the ages. "I still go like this sometimes."

He looked at the folks around him. He shook his head. Side to side. Then side to side again. He looked around again to make sure everyone had gotten his drift.

"I shake my head," he went on. "My wife says to me, 'Why are you shaking your head?' I say, 'It's unbelievable what happened.' It was just incredible, how we were able to win that ball game, how we were able to put up those at-bats. I mean, it was incredible."

Beltran was as emotional after that game as people who have known him for years have ever seen him. And he credited his teammates for lifting him to that unique place in time. But on Sunday, he was the one lifting them, with a mammoth two-run homer that floated back to earth a third of the way up the bleachers in left.

It was just a year ago that Beltran spent the last two months of his season playing in this park, for the Giants. So he knows well that, thanks to pitcher-friendly inventions like the Northern California marine layer, not all mammoth fly balls turn into game-breaking home runs. But for once, when this one left the bat, he wasn't worried.

"With this one, as soon as I hit it, I knew I hit it good," he said. "Last year here, yes, I hit some balls and went, 'Wow, I got this one,' and no chance. They never even made it to the warning track. But this time, I knew."

When that baseball landed, the Cardinals had a 6-0 fourth-inning lead, and a large enough cushion to withstand a four-run Giants rally in the bottom of the fourth. But it also represented one more opportunity to appreciate what a special player Beltran has been on this October stage.

After 133 postseason trips to the plate, Beltran's career October OPS is now 1.305. That ranks him No. 1 in the history of baseball. His OBP is now .481. That's also No. 1.

Only one other National Leaguer in history has ever hit more postseason home runs than the 14 Beltran has now hit -- Albert Pujols (18). And only two other men, period, own at least 14 postseason home runs and a postseason batting average of .325 or better. One is Pujols. The other is Babe Ruth.

But when Beltran was asked Sunday night, after his third home run of this postseason, if "this is your time," he preferred to think big picture.

"I don't see it that way," he said. "This is about a team. This is about us, trying to go out there and win. I'm just trying to do my part … and it feels like good things are happening. I can't explain what it is. Right now, the way I feel, I feel calm. I feel relaxed. I'm not trying to do too much. I'm just letting the game come to me."

But he also understands that he's 35 now, that health isn't something he can take for granted, and that he finds himself playing for a team that could finally allow him to make his long-time World Series dreams come true.

"Playing in the World Series, that's a dream for me," he said. "And since I signed, since my first day in the big leagues, I always wanted to have that opportunity. … And I understand now that winning the World Series is not an easy thing to do. Look at what happened in Texas. They've been to the World Series twice. They never win it. And that shows how hard it is to win a World Series.

"In my case, God only knows how many more chances I'm going to get. So I'm just enjoying myself, and enjoying this time."

Maybe, after all these years, after a journey that has taken him from Kansas City to Houston, from New York to San Francisco, and now, finally, to St. Louis, he is finally in the right time and place.

There are too many games left to play in this postseason to say that for sure, of course, and too many games left to win. But he finds himself now on a team that just seems to get what October baseball is all about. And it keeps proving it, night after spine-tingling night.

It doesn't seem to matter how many great pitchers walk out there expecting to shut these Cardinals down. It doesn't seem to matter how raucous the setting is. They just keep grinding those at-bats, spinning the dial on those scoreboards, finding another way to reenact their October 2011, greatest-hits collection. And the crazier it gets, the more they love it.

"My first time in the postseason, last year, we had to play in Philly, Milwaukee and Texas," Freese said. "Now we went Atlanta, D.C. and San Francisco. If those places don't get you ready, you're out of luck.

"I've said it before, but you've got to embrace it. Sometimes, the crowd will eat you up if you let it. So either you let it affect you, or you feed off it. And we feed off it.

"For us," said David Freese, "this is the best time of year."

And if he keeps this up for another three weeks, he might even get his Mr. October Club membership card renewed -- for the rest of his life.