ST. LOUIS — A.J. Burnett said he could never find his groove. Come playoff time, Carlos Beltran always seems to find his.
Beltran unloaded on a poorly placed pedestrian fastball from Burnett for a three-run home run Thursday afternoon, the 15th postseason drive of his career to tie Babe Ruth for eighth place, all time. It powered the St. Louis Cardinals in a seven-run third inning, which gave ace Adam Wainwright plenty of support in a 9-1 victory in Game 1 of the best-of-five NL Division Series.
Wainwright dominated with 10 strikeouts, allowing a run and three hits over seven innings. He also drew a walk to lead off the big third. Burnett also set a tone for the NL wild card winners, who famously are making their first playoff appearance in 21 years. Just not the kind of tone they wanted to hear.
"You want to come out and put your foot down," Burnett said. "Balls were going where they shouldn’t be going. It was a grind all the way. I made a few pitches here and there, but I wasn’t able to string many together. It was on again, off again. Way off again. The big third inning was basically the story of the game.
"It was just an effort to keep battling, keep trying to find my groove that I never found."
Beltran's colossal three-run homer off the facing of the second deck landed 443 feet from home. Busch Stadium rocked as fans twirled white towels over their heads, as if they were doing the Pittsburgh Pirates a favor by surrendering for them. Teammate David Freese said a sub-theme of this season is to win a championship for Beltran, who hasn't yet.
"We want to push through this for a guy like Carlos who deserves a ring." -- David Freese #WinItForBeltran
— Marc Carig (@MarcCarig) October 4, 2013
After connecting on his homer, Beltran stood and watched for a moment (not obnoxiously, like where Brian McCann might object) and flipped his bat kind of like how Reggie Jackson used to as the high-arching ball hugged the right-field line. After much begging from the fans, Beltran emerged from the home dugout and tipped his cap quickly for an unusually early curtain call.
Seemingly every time he gets a chance in the postseason, Beltran delivers like few players in history.
"For me, it's simple," Beltran said. "It's God giving me the opportunity to play in meaningful games, and [me doing] hard work through the years. I think as a ballplayer you always dream to be able to play in postseason games and try to win a World Series. You know, there is no other explanation."
Ruth in his day played with only the World Series round to accumulate numbers. Still, it took Ruth 167 plate appearances to hit 15 homers. Beltran did it in 152. Jim Thome is seventh on the list with 17 homers in 267 plate appearances, and Manny Ramirez leads with 29 in 493. Other than Nelson Cruz, Beltran is outpacing anyone in the top 10 in postseason homers per plate appearance. Beltran's 1.251 OPS is first, all-time. He's also a free agent at the end of the season.
So is Burnett, who has said he might retire. But this is not how he wants to go out.
Burnett began the third by walking Wainwright in a seven-pitch at-bat. Matt Carpenter followed with a sharp single to right and Beltran stood Busch on its head by homering for a 3-0 lead. Matt Holliday followed with a sharp double, and it was starting all over again for Burnett, who faced four more batters before being pulled, after David Freese's two-run double. With manager Clint Hurdle (more like Clint Turtle) slow to react, Burnett allowed seven runs — all earned — along with six hits, four walks and a hit batter over two-plus innings.
"Please, put it all on me," Hurdle said. "That was my decision, so as I've told you guys as to the fault at our club, when we win, give the players all the credit; when we lose, give the manager all the blame."
After a rollicking wild-card experience at home Tuesday night, it's not how the Pirates wanted their second playoff game since 1992 to go. It was another in a string of dismal performances the past two seasons for Burnett at Busch Stadium, where over his past five starts he's been awful: 18 innings pitched, 37 hits, 31 earned runs, 10 walks, three hit batters, 15.50 ERA.
"I didn’t execute anything," Burnett said. "That’s been the story here."
Burnett's 38 strikes in 72 pitches suggest wildness, but they don't tell the entire story. From the beginning, Burnett seemed troubled to hit any of his desired spots. Curveball, fastball, whatever. It was drifting or it was hanging and the Cardinals didn't let him get away with it.
"You come in here to get momentum and you give them momentum in the third. It’s tough to push back after that," Burnett said. "We got another one tomorrow; that’s the good thing."