NEW YORK – Too few appreciate the 2004 National League Championship Series, the one in which Carlos Beltran and Albert Pujols chatted like old friends before the games and played like legends during them, because of some series between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. You know, the one that eventually begot that awful Jimmy Fallon-Drew Barrymore kiss. Ugh.
Point is, the opportunity is again afoot. Beltran vs. Pujols. Supreme talent vs. supreme talent. And to call boiling a series down to two players short-sighted was to have not seen Game 1 of the best-of-seven NLCS on Thursday night, when Beltran, now of the New York Mets, won the game, and Pujols, the St. Louis Cardinals' beacon, did everything not to.
One pitch was going to decide what was a scoreless duel between New York's Tom Glavine and St. Louis' Jeff Weaver, and it happened to be a Weaver fastball to Beltran in the sixth inning. He crushed it 430 feet for a 2-0 lead that the Mets held to the end, Beltran earning every bit of his $119 million contract and conjuring the feelings of two years ago.
"Of course," Beltran said. "Every time you do something in October, it means a lot."
Pujols, on the other hand, felt the vagaries of a poor October performance. In the top half of the sixth inning, he, too, had seen a fastball with a runner on base, an 86-mph meatball from Glavine that bisected the plate. He took it and instead swung at the next pitch, a changeup that he lined right at Mets shortstop Jose Reyes.
So went the night for Pujols, the victor in 2004's seven-game struggle between the Cardinals and the Houston Astros. He didn't get a hit, extending his mini-slump to 0 for 10. Worst of all, his baserunning blunder in the fourth inning came at the hands of Beltran.
On first base following a walk, Pujols side-stepped toward second base on a short fly ball from Juan Encarnacion. He must have thought it was going to drop, because when Beltran caught the ball, Pujols stood, feet seemingly planted, halfway between first and second base. Though Beltran threw off the wrong foot, he still nabbed Pujols by four steps for an inning-ending double play.
"Why [should] I be frustrated?" Pujols said. "I can't make a mistake? Am I perfect?"
In order: Because he made a boneheaded play. In these circumstances, no. And of course not, but he needs to be awfully close if the Cardinals want to advance to the World Series.
Prior to the series, Mets manager Willie Randolph was peppered with questions about how he would pitch to Pujols – or if he would. It was a kind way of saying that St. Louis' lineup, excepting Pujols, inspires about as much fear as a pack of Girl Scouts.
Game 1 did nothing to dispel that. The Cardinals managed four hits against Glavine, one from Weaver. Guillermo Mota pitched out of a jam in the eighth inning – leaving Pujols on deck with David Eckstein on first when Preston Wilson popped out – and Billy Wagner shut down St. Louis in the ninth.
"It doesn't matter who we've got out there pitching," Pujols said. "We need to score some runs. We didn't swing the bat well. – We can go out there and throw nine perfect innings, but if we don't score, we're not going to win."
In 2004, the Cardinals trotted out a lineup with Pujols, Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds, who finished 3-4-5 in the MVP voting that season, plus Larry Walker, Edgar Renteria, Reggie Sanders and a competent Tony Womack. They hit 11 home runs in the NLCS, four from Pujols, who actually had a better series, statistically, than Beltran. Both finished the NLCS with four homers and a .562 on-base percentage, Beltran with a 12-10 advantage in runs, Pujols ahead 9-5 in RBIs and with a slugging percentage 42 points higher.
Still, Beltran's star turn that postseason – he had spent his first 5½ years in relative anonymity with the Kansas City Royals – was the dominant story. First he hit four home runs in five games against the Atlanta Braves in the division series, then homered in the first four games of the NLCS, prompting intentional-walk queries toward Cardinals manager Tony La Russa.
"Every time you made a mistake to him," Randolph said, "he hit the crap out of it."
As much as Randolph hopes Beltran can duplicate that run, La Russa cringes at the thought of having to beat Beltran again. There was the NLCS, sure, and there was Aug. 22 this year, when Beltran hit a thunderous ninth-inning home run off Jason Isringhausen to give the Mets an 8-7 victory.
"He's a big-game guy," Randolph said. "He's shown what he can do throughout the season. We're not looking for him to duplicate that, but he seems to have a flare for coming through in a big spot."
He certainly did on Thursday. Beltran laughed when it was suggested he's becoming the new Reggie Jackson, saying, "I'm Carlos Beltran." When he tried to further explain, he fell into typical Beltran-speak: How he's happy to be here, and how he wants to thank the Lord and his teammates, and how he doesn't really mean to make the postseason his personal plaything.
"Sometimes as a hitter, you try to do so much and things don't go the way you want it," Beltran said. "When you go into the batter's box and just see the ball and hit the ball, a lot of good things happen."
So long as they don't involve a kiss and do resemble 2004, that's more than OK.