NEW YORK -- If nothing changes this year or next year, then the signature image of Carlos Beltran's run with the Mets will be his bat on his shoulder as he watched that Adam Wainwright NLCS Game 7 curveball drop from the sky to end the Mets' World Series hopes one swing shy.
Ever since that October night in 2006, the Mets have been in different stages of collapse. The latest was a 2-9 road trip that had the Mets free-falling into third place, trying to avoid going 50-50 after 100 games Tuesday night.
So, if the Mets have one of their miracle stories all set up for their fans, then Beltran looking at a season-ending, soul-crushing third strike may not be his lasting image. If so, the turnaround could have happened against Wainwright, of all people.
In the second inning, after David Wright led off with a walk, Beltran -- entering as a .167 hitter -- stepped to the plate to mixed reviews from the crowd. Beltran had not hit at Citi Field since Oct. 4 and it was his old October friend, Wainwright, on the mound.
As if to tease Beltran and the 37,459 on hand, Wainwright started Beltran with a 74 mph curveball. But on the next pitch, Beltran smacked a 93 mph sinker the other way. The ground-rule double led to an Ike Davis RBI groundout.
And, "Ya Gotta Believe!" The Mets had scored a run for the first time in 16 innings.
They would add seven more, including a Beltran bloop RBI off Wainwright. Jeff Francoeur, in for the concussed Jason Bay, smacked a three-run fourth-inning homer. Jose Reyes added a two-run shot in the sixth, starter Jon Niese pitched well and the Mets blasted Wainwright and the Cardinals, 8-2, enjoying their home cooking, as they usually do.
The eight runs matched the Mets' total in the previous four games.
They did it without their manager, Jerry Manuel, and with their hitting coach, Howard Johnson. Manuel watched with the TV sound down in his office after being suspended one game for bumping into an umpire over the weekend, while Johnson was in the dugout having survived weekend speculation -- and a Monday organizational meeting -- to keep his job.
"We needed that very badly," Manuel said of the victory.
Now, the Mets, sitting in trade deadline purgatory -- are they buyers, sellers or watchers? -- gave a little smidgen of hope after the terrible road trip in which they scored 23 runs and hit .196 in 11 games. It is now or never.
"It has to be," said Francoeur, adding he hopes for a 4-2 or 5-1 homestand before trips to Atlanta and Philadelphia next week.
For the Mets, the return of Beltran may mark their biggest acquisition. When Beltran is right, he is one of the most gifted players in baseball. There is an aloofness to his off-the-field personality -- he said he didn't think of the NLCS at-bat when he faced Wainwright on Tuesday, making him maybe the only one in the building who didn't have a flashback -- but his talent is unquestioned. The Mets expect Beltran to be Beltran.
"Just as it took Jose time, it will take Carlos time," Manuel said. "Carlos is not a guy who's going to wind up hitting .200 or whatever. He'll hit whatever he's done in his career, [it's] just a matter of time. He's [the] type of guy that can carry us when he does get hot. We kind of expect that to start happening soon."
After the dismal road trip, Francoeur and the Mets did not know what to expect in terms of the reception from the fans.
"We came here to expect the unexpected in New York," Francoeur said.
The unexpected would be for the Mets to somehow make the playoffs, to turn around this roller coaster of a season. If they amaze and do it with Beltran in the middle of it all, they will look back at Tuesday night as the game when Beltran finally stared at the image that burns eternally in his Mets career and started to erase it.
Hey, the Mets scored eight runs. Anything is possible.