CARLOS BELTRAN fears God but, evidently, not the glare of the postseason. The Astros' centerfielder, a quiet, spiritual man who spent 6 1/2 years in the hinterlands of Kansas City before being traded to Houston on June 24, has made a great deal of noise in this, his first postseason. "I wasn't expecting this at all," he said on Sunday at Minute Maid Park after his eighth home run in the playoffs--which tied Barry Bonds's record for a postseason, set in 2002--had given the Astros a 6--5 victory in Game 4 and evened the National League Championship Series at 2--2. "I was just trying to do my job, not trying to break records."
In the bottom of the seventh, with one out and the game tied 5--5, Beltran dipped down like a golfer and scooped a 2-and-2 slider from St. Louis righthander Julian Tavarez into the right-centerfield bullpen. It was a record fifth straight postseason game in which Beltran hit a home run. "The ump was reaching back to get another ball," says Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell, who was watching from the on-deck circle, "because that [pitch] was in the dirt." Beltran had seen two sliders earlier in the at bat and was sitting on a third, but the one he got, he plucked off an ant's shoulders. (Tavarez, who had tried to bounce the pitch, thereupon melted down, walking the next two batters and hitting a third before throwing a tantrum in the Cardinals' dugout after the inning--and breaking bones in his left hand punching the dugout phone--all out of frustration at Beltran's implausible reach.)
But a playoff assault like Beltran's can induce awe as well as hysteria. After Game 5 on Monday night, a 3--0 victory that left the Astros one win from the first World Series in franchise history, Beltran had gone 18 for 39 (.462) in 10 games with a .544 on-base percentage. The 6'1", 190pound Beltran, with characteristic humility, says he does not consider himself a power hitter, and he'd prefer to hit .300 (as he has done twice) to slugging 50 homers (his high is 38, this season). But his stroke is deceptive. "In batting practice he'll hit one, and you'll think, O.K., line drive to rightfield," says Bagwell, "and it'll end up four rows deep. He has tremendous power, and his bat head stays in the zone so long."
Some suggest that Beltran now merits the Bonds treatment: lots of intentional walks. But as Houston rightfielder Lance Berkman says, "You don't want to put him on because he can steal second, steal third. That's another aspect to his game." In fact, the switch-hitting Beltran may be the most complete player in the game. He stole 42 bases in 45 regular-season attempts (and was successful in his first three postseason tries), and his career success rate--192 swipes in 215 attempts (89.3%)--makes him the most difficult base stealer to catch in baseball history (minimum 100 steals). "He runs effortlessly," Bagwell says, "yet he's running faster than anyone else." At 27, Beltran's also a Gold Glove--caliber centerfielder.
And he's entering his prime at prime time. A free agent at season's end, Beltran is expected to land a huge contract, and there's been widespread speculation that the New York Yankees will open their vault in an attempt to sign him. Beltran will not discuss his contract situation, saying only that he wants to play for a contender. A petition addressed to Astros CEO Drayton McLane on the fan site AstrosDaily.com, urging him to resign Beltran, had drawn some 7,000 online signatures by Monday night.
Beltran had a co-star in the NLCS: St. Louis first baseman Albert Pujols, who was nearly matching him--Hearns to Beltran's Hagler--blow for thudding blow. In nine postseason games through Monday, Pujols had gone 14 for 34 (.412) with five home runs and 11 RBIs. Though he lacks Beltran's foot speed, the 6'3", 225pound Pujols has similar power, and his home runs are also line drive tracers.
Pujols comes to the plate with a routine: He digs in with his right foot on the back line of the batter's box, taps his bat head on the bottom point of the plate, then carefully draws the bat back behind his ear and perpendicular to the ground. Pujols then raises and lowers his pointed right elbow slowly, three or four times, like a bellows, while holding his bat steady. Sixty percent of his weight rests on his back foot. Because he knows that hand speed is his biggest strength, he reminds himself to keep his hands back, waiting until he sees the pitcher's release point before he strikes. The unfurling of his swing--he stands pigeon-toed, pivoting on the ball of his left foot as the pitch comes in, before lashing his bat through the zone--produces thunderous explosions.
Pujols, 24, is a cerebral hitter who is very consistent--only once this season did he go three straight games without a hit--and is constantly making adjustments. "Nothing fazes him, and his swing is never out of whack," says Cardinals rightfielder Larry Walker. "There's only a handful of people I've seen like that who don't get into slumps: Todd Helton, Tony Gwynn. What they have in common is that they're always working on their swings. What people don't see is Albert leaving the dugout after every at bat to go up to the clubhouse and look at tape, critiquing himself. He's in the video room a lot, in the cage a lot." Pujols lifts weights to strengthen his forearms in the off-season; he maintains his sharpness by hitting off a ratty batting tee with a red base on which PUJOLS #5 is scrawled in black marker. His swing has no holes, and like Beltran, he has punished very good pitchers this postseason. Behind in the count 2 and 0 in the first inning of Game 1, Astros righthander Brandon Backe threw a 93mph fastball high and away that he hoped Pujols might chase; Pujols did, flashing his bat head to drive Backe's pitch out of the park to rightfield.
Pujols has even shown defensive mettle. In the sixth inning of Game 2, with men on first and second and none out and the Cardinals clinging to a 4--3 lead, Houston's Eric Bruntlett squared to sacrifice. The righthanded-throwing Pujols charged the bunt, bare-handed it on a high hop five feet from the plate and threw a strike to Scott Rolen at third for the force-out. "I thought I had it, but then I heard him say, 'I got it,'" says St. Louis reliever Kiko Calero. "He was too quick."
Beltran's and Pujols's one-upmanship has become the thread running through the NLCS. In hopes of prolonging his success, Beltran, who insists he is not superstitious, has nonetheless developed a habit. His wife, Jessica, has been fixing him pregame breakfasts of two ham-and-cheese sandwiches and four slices of bacon. He has been eating them, driving to the ballpark and hitting home runs. He'd relish nothing more than the chance to keep going. -- Daniel G. Habib