ST. LOUIS -- Larry Walker and Carlos Beltran are different in many ways. The former is a wizened veteran who grew up with hockey in the cold climes of British Columbia. The latter is 10 years his junior and grew up under the blazing sun of Puerto Rico with the dream of following his idols into Major League Baseball.
Now they come to Busch Stadium on Wednesday night on opposite sides of the National League Championship Series, and for all their individual differences, the two players' similarities are both remarkable and fundamentally important to how the Cardinals and Astros got to this Game 1. Consider:
Both were colossal acquisitions at the summer's trading deadline. Beltran was brought from Kansas City to Houston in one of the earliest deals, a three-way trade that sent closer Octavio Dotel to Oakland and prospects John Buck, Mike Wood and Mark Teahen to the Royals. Walker actually came from Colorado to St. Louis just after the July 31 deadline, acquired with cash considerations in exchange for minor leaguer Jason Burch and two players to be named (Luis Martinez and Chris Narveson).
Both have been known as five-tool players who would be prototypical 3, 4 or 5 hitters in the average Major League lineup, but both have made a first-time transition to the No. 2 spot in their orders in 2004. They are not the typical two-hole hitters of baseball past, neither one goes to the plate merely to move the runner over with the occasional sacrifice bunt or slapped single through a hole while the leadoff man steals second. They are much more; throw in Alex Rodriguez, and a mini-trend has emerged.
Both have taken tremendous advantage of a unique opportunity to be in a postseason. Walker made his first playoff appearance since 1995, and he celebrated with two homers in Game 1 of the NLDS at Busch and followed that performance by reaching base four times and scoring three runs in the Game 4 clincher at Dodger Stadium. Beltran made his postseason debut against the Braves, and put an exclamation mark on a big NLDS by going 4-for-5 with two homers in the clincher at Turner Field.
"All this year for me has been a dream," Beltran said Tuesday. "Being able to be in my first All-Star Game, being able to make it to the playoffs, being able to perform like the way I am doing right now, I just feel like it is a dream."
"I've been on some real [bad] teams and some great teams," Walker said. "This has been fun to experience. You've got the sea of red here. Fans know the game here -- they know when to cheer, when to boo. You have to love this."
Both clubs have to love their trade-deadline acquisitions, and whichever No. 2 hitter has the biggest series could help determine which one of these clubs will go on to the World Series. Here is a look at each player:
Larry Walker: A different breed
The Cardinals' right-fielder was wearing a Seattle Seahhawks T-shirt in the clubhouse after Wednesday's workout, not exactly standard attire in a community where the Rams just staged one of the biggest second-half comebacks in NFL history to beat those NFC West foes. But Walker is not the type who conforms to others.
"I'm only three hours north of Seattle," said Walker, referring to his Canada home, "so I'm sticking with that ... no offense to the Rams."
Larry Walker / RF
Weight: 235 lbs
Bats: L / Throws: R
Cardinals manager Tony La Russa will be sticking with Walker in the two-hole in that vaunted offense. Walker led the club with 12 total bases and six runs scored in the NLDS against Los Angeles. It was Walker who got the postseason party started in St. Louis, hitting the two-out homer off Odalis Perez in that five-run third inning of Game 1 and then adding a second homer in the seventh inning. Walker was 2-for-3 with two walks and three runs in the Game 4 clincher, thriving on massive protection in the order.
"I don't know how you describe it," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said of Walker, words that could apply just as easily to Houston's move. "We had a really good team and added an outstanding player. Add outstanding to really good, and that makes us better.
"One of the neat things about Walker in that two spot is, he's a very intelligent player. A lot of times with a two-hole, especially the ability to play the game, if Tony [Womack] is on, maybe try to hit the hole, or if they fall behind him and might challenge him with Albert [Pujols] on deck. You have to be smart to understand how every at-bat might make a difference. Larry is very smart, very talented. He'd be a terrific third hitter, fourth hitter. In a lot of ways, he's an ideal No. 2 hitter if you like damage from the second spot. If you like a Ted Sizemore type, which is very good, too, he's not Ted Sizemore."
Walker was "a hockey guy" who wasn't even considering the sport of baseball when Sizemore was playing for those Cardinal clubs in the '70's. When Walker was brought to St. Louis, hitting in the two hole was not exactly his foremost thought. Good luck finding an example where he had done that before in a Major League career that began in 1989 in Montreal. When he went to Colorado for the offensive explosion of the 1990s, the lineup typically was Dante Bichette batting third, Andres Galarraga fourth, Walker fifth and Vinny Castilla sixth. When Galarraga left, it was typically Walker third, Bichette fourth and Todd Helton fifth. Last year, it was Helton third, Preston Wilson fourth and Walker fifth.
Houston Astros vs. St. Louis Cardinals
at St. Louis
STL 10, HOU 7
at St. Louis
at St. Louis
at St. Louis
* If necessary
Somewhere in that 3-4-5 combination at Coors Field, you were going to find Walker's name as long as he was healthy. Did he ever think he'd hit second for St. Louis?
"I didn't think so," he said. "[La Russa] mentioned Scott [Rolen] would move down so I could hit fourth, but I wasn't sure. I didn't want to come here and mess things up."
Tony Womack, who hits in front of Walker in the leadoff spot, said it has been interesting to watch the veteran adapt to this new role.
"For a lot of teams, the biggest thing is not to let me get on base," Womack said. "But then you've got a two hitter who's considered a four or three on most teams. He's like Beltran -- if you make a mistake, [the score] can be 1-0 or 2-0. The thing he brought us, he just made that lineup a little deeper, a little harder to pitch around."
Carlos Beltran: Hope in Houston
The best move for Beltran was the July trade that sent him to the Astros. The second-best move was the decision not to trade him again.
It is hard to imagine now, but it was a distinct possibility. Houston was going nowhere fast, and many clubs were calling the Astros to take him off their hands before he would become a free agent this winter.
"I was a little bit worried for me, you know, being traded again," Beltran said. "I heard a couple of times [general manager] Gerry Hunsicker say that he wasn't going to trade me. But you never know. You never know when we're in a situation where I am right now, next year I will be a free agent, and if the team's still playing good, the team will do whatever it can for you. I wasn't worried.
"When we found a way to turn the season around and we saw ourselves like three games behind the Wild Card, I knew that I was going to stay with the club and I was very happy. It's been a great experience being around [Jeff] Bagwell, [Craig] Biggio, [Roger] Clemens, all these guys. It's really helping me a lot to be a better player."
Whereas Walker moved to the two hole after the trade, Beltran actually made the transition at the start of this season by Royals manager Tony Pena. Beltran was moved back to third by Astros manager Jimy Williams, before replacement manager Phil Garner pushed him back up a spot.
"He's been as good as you can be," Garner said. "There isn't anything he can't do, and that includes throwing the ball. We've seen him throw guys out from center field. You don't see that very often in today's game. He can beat you with his legs on the bases, in the outfield with his defense, and [he] can certainly beat you with base hits and home runs. He's the total package and, in addition to that, he's a nice young man.
"We would like it to have kept it a secret for a little while, but the word's out now."
Raising guffaws in the interview room after the Cardinals' workout on Tuesday, La Russa said, "[Beltran's] a true 5-tool guy and I wish they didn't have him."
Whichever club is able to best contain the opponent's No. 2 hitter is going to find a significant advantage as this series unfolds. If only it were as easy as Cardinals Game 1 starter Woody Williams says: "I'm going to try to miss the fat part of the bat."
Yes, there are differences, as different as the Great White North and the sunny tropics. Beltran played a key role in leading Houston to a fabulous surge and a playoff berth on the last day of the season. Walker came aboard an unstoppable team that was headed for a postseason. They have different styles, different backgrounds and different futures. But right now, the NLCS is about to begin and there are two summer acquisitions in the two spot who are just waiting to make a difference.
Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
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