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Pujols, Beltran simply super10/20/2004 8:56 PM ET
By Mark Newman / MLB.com
ST. LOUIS -- If there is one image that will most poignantly capture the 2004 National League Championship Series, it might be that of two superstars who each slid into first base in the top of the 12th inning during Game 6.
On one side of the bag, diving headfirst, was Houston batter Carlos Beltran. He would finish Wednesday hitting 10-for-21 (.476) with 11 runs, seven walks, four homers (a postseason record-tying eight overall), and two unforgettable plays in center field that were fresh in the memory from Monday.
On the other side of the bag, sliding feet first after fielding the grounder, was St. Louis first baseman Albert Pujols. He would finish the day at 12-for-24 (.500) with eight runs, four homers, eight RBIs and defensive gems as well.
Pujols' foot touched the base just before Beltran's hand.
Both players have touched the imagination of fans in this series.
Only one of them would win that small contest, and only one of them will advance to the World Series. But with one seventh and deciding game still to go at 8 p.m. ET on Thursday, both players have made their mark on an NLCS with a kind of routine magnificence at this level rarely seen by even one player.
"We've had two of the best players in the game head-on here -- it doesn't get any better than that," said Astros play-by-play man Milo Hamilton, who has been broadcasting games for roughly the combined years those players have lived. "Pujols has become such a good first baseman, too -- a five-tool player who can hit the ball halfway to the Arch. I already had a good idea what Beltran can do, but everyone is seeing him take his game to another level. In these kinds of series, you can think of unexpected players like the Billy Martins who hit .220 for the year and were series heroes. But here you've had two great players who have done it all."
It only seems like Pujols and Beltran have been on base virtually every at-bat in this series. It only seems like each one is batting in a crucial situation -- and coming through in the clutch. Beltran and Pujols each led off his half of that 12th inning Wednesday, and after Beltran and the Astros were retired, Pujols was intentionally walked and ultimately scored the winning run on Jim Edmonds' walk-off homer.
"It's been a treat to watch Albert day-in and day-out," said Larry Walker, who came to the Cardinals from Colorado in early August and had little exposure to Beltran's pre-Houston game in Kansas City. "Look at what (Pujols) did in this game. Three hits, and then he takes a base on balls in the 12th. A lot of guys might try to be the hero, but he had restraint to just get on, and Jimmy hits the winner.
"As for talking about Beltran, I don't like it one bit. Our pitchers hate it more. To do what he's done now is phenomenal. You hear from pitchers who have been around the AL just what his game was like there, but to see it is something."
One probable effect of both players' performances in this postseason will be felt during next spring's fantasy baseball drafts.
Pujols most likely would have been a top-five pick either way. Beltran -- who had a combined 42 steals to go with 38 homers this season for Kansas City and then Houston -- probably just rose to the very top of the draft crop providing he is part of a strong lineup after going through free agency this winter.
"As a player, this is what you look for, being in this situation," Beltran said before the series moved back to St. Louis. "There's no better feeling than this. This is right here and right now, it's a dream come true for me."
And now there is one more chance to watch him and Pujols on the same stage, at least for 2004. Had Pujols not reached that base with his foot before Beltran reached it with his hand, maybe things would have been different. But these two players keep doing something you don't expect, and Pujols, who converted from outfield to first base this season, said sliding feet-first on that kind of play was a first.
"I don't think I ever have, but first of all, I want to catch the ball," he said. "And if Tavarez couldn't get there, which I doubt he could get there, Beltran was running hard all the way. I try to get the ball out of my glove. I looked, I was like, 'Wow, he's flying.' I was like, 'Hey, I'm gonna slide.' I'm just glad nobody got hurt and we got the out."
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.