ST. LOUIS – There was 2004, his seventh major league season, his first playoffs. Carlos Beltran was with the Astros, and they reached Game 7 of the NLCS. Roger Clemens started for Houston, and if anybody was going to pitch a winner-take-all game for the right to play in the World Series ... well, this was Roger Clemens on the mound. The Astros lost 5-2. The winners? The Cardinals, whose starting catcher was Mike Matheny.
The wait continued.
"It wasn't meant to be," Beltran said Friday night.
There was 2006, maybe the most painful of them all. Game 7 of the NLCS, Mets versus Cardinals at Shea Stadium. Tied 1-1 until Yadier Molina's two-run home run in the top of the ninth. Still, Beltran, the Mets' main man, had a chance until the end. He stepped to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. But Adam Wainwright flat froze him with a curveball for strike three.
"It wasn't meant to happen," Beltran said.
And there was 2012, Beltran's 15th major league season, and another Game 7 in another NLCS. In the rain in San Francisco, the Giants finished off a one-sided, anticlimactic 9-0 win. Beltran, now with the Cardinals, went home one series early. Again.
The wait continued.
"At the end of the day, I understand it's God's will," Beltran said. "For me, being so close and never being able to get to the World Series, it's all given me motivation to come every year and work hard and try to get there."
Then came 2013, and the wait ended. After 2,064 games and 16 seasons, Beltran, who has been one of October's greatest players on every postseason stage except the biggest one, will finally arrive on it. He will play in his first World Series, starting Wednesday in either Boston or Detroit. Partly on the strength of his three hits and two RBIs on Friday night, Beltran and the Cardinals dispatched the Dodgers in Game 6 of his most recent NLCS experience to win the series four games to two.
"The dream was good," Beltran said. "The reality is better. This is a dream come true for me."
Only two active players have seen more games come and go without a World Series appearance than Beltran had until now. One of them is Miguel Tejada, who has played 16 seasons and 2,171 games without the opportunity to win the world championship. The other is Torii Hunter, who has been in 2,091 games over his 17 seasons and has his own chance for the dream to come true this weekend as the Tigers finish up the ALCS against Boston.
The all-time leader on the World Series frustration list is Rafael Palmeiro, who played in 2,831 games over 20 seasons, according to Baseball-Reference. Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, incidentally, went through 14 seasons and 1,785 games with the Yankees without a World Series appearance; the Cardinals win in this NLCS will keep him away from one for at least another year.
Beltran's long wait for a World Series began in Kansas City, where he played his first 6½ years. The Royals didn't finish higher than third in any of those seasons and traded him to Houston in June of 2004. When the Astros made the playoffs as a wild-card team that year, Beltran's reputation as a postseason power was born. He hit .455 with four home runs, nine RBIs and a 1.591 OPS in the divisional round against Atlanta and followed it up in the NLCS against St. Louis by hitting .417 with another four home runs (tying Barry Bonds single-postseason home run record of eight) , four stolen bases and a 1.521 OPS.
But it ended in frustration. In Game 7 against the Cardinals that year, he went 0-for-3.
Two years later, with the Mets, he hit .296 with three home runs and a .667 slugging percentage and a 1.054 OPS in the NLCS. But one game away from the World Series, again against the Cardinals, Beltran went 1-for-4 and left three men on base. And Wainwright, then a rookie closer, struck him out to end Game 7.
We're excited for him. … He's been so close a lot of times. He's one of the most impressive postseason hitters in the history of the game. We wanted to take him to that next level.
"-- Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright,
on Carlos Beltran
Beltran stayed with the Mets for another 5½ years, but they didn't reach the postseason again.
Then, in 2012, Wainwright and Beltran became teammates when Beltran signed a two-year contract with St. Louis. According to Wainwright, they've talked about that 2006 at-bat, and the caught-looking strike that finished it, exactly once.
"A couple of days after we signed him, I called him just to kind of clear the air and get it out in the open because I knew we were going to be asked questions about it," Wainwright said. "He said we'll leave it in the past, and that's right where we left it."
Said Beltran, "We don't talk about it. That happened a long time ago. There's no need to talk about it. He did his job. He got me out. I wasn't able to come through."
Last year, as Beltran moved through another near-miss postseason, he hit .444 with a 1.486 OPS and a pair of home runs in the Division Series against Washington, and then .300 with another home run against the Giants in the NLCS. But he was as punchless as the rest of the Cardinals (with the exception being Yadier Molina, who had four hits that night in San Francisco) in the Game 7 loss, going 1-for-4.
So it was especially gratifying that Beltran was an offensive -- and defensive -- force on Friday night in the game that finally got him into the World Series. His first-inning double was his 30th career postseason extra-base hit, which makes him only the third player in National League history to reach that level behind Albert Pujols (37) and Chipper Jones (31), according to ESPN Stats & Info. His single in the third inning drove in the game's first run, his 11th RBI since the 2013 playoffs began.
Altogether fitting and proper. Nobody in the history of the game has a better postseason slugging percentage than Beltran's .724 over the 45 playoff games he's experienced.
And his diving catch of a Juan Uribe drive to right field in the fifth inning was the defensive play of the game.
So the long wait ended for Beltran, but not before a sleepless-in-St. Louis night on Thursday.
"I was thinking about baseball all night, man," he said. "I mean, it was like 3 in the morning and I'm holding my hands [gripping a bat], just thinking about the game. Just thinking about what I needed to do and envisioning in my mind having success. That's what I did this morning. When you play these type of games, you can't sleep. I go home, and I've got to take some pills in order to go to bed and not think about anything. I think about the game. I think about the things I need to do when I get to the ballpark. And, hopefully, all those positive things you put in your brain can come true. And today, more than what I was thinking came true."
In a quiet Dodgers' clubhouse, the losers gave him his props.
"I'm happy for him," said Dodgers outfielder Skip Schumaker, who played with Beltran in St. Louis last year. "He deserves to play in a World Series. He deserves to win a World Series. He's one of the good guys in the game. He goes about it the right way. He's one of the best players I've ever played with. I'm glad he's finally going to be rewarded by the game."
That certainly was the sentiment among this year's Cardinals, too.
"We're excited for him," Wainwright said. "He's one of the biggest reasons why we wanted to go out and win a baseball game tonight. He's been so close a lot of times. He's one of the most impressive postseason hitters in the history of the game. We wanted to take him to that next level."
And so as the Cardinals gathered in their Busch Stadium clubhouse after the postgame festivities on the field, Beltran called them together and then called for silence so he could speak.
This is what he told his teammates: "I heard a lot about you guys trying to get me to a World Series. I really appreciate that. I expect a lot from you guys.
"So let's go get it done."