Clutch hitters emerge on postseason stage
Baseball's most reliable shift into another gear when the stakes are raised
It is the same game in October, intensified immeasurably by rising stakes and pressures that lift pulse rates off the charts. While pitching is paramount, and everyone rolls out the big arms, you can't win without runs. Offense is at a premium.
Players who manage to control their emotions while retaining an uncluttered, confident mindset are the ones who tend to soar.
Reggie Jackson, on both coasts with the A's and Yankees, was the embodiment of such a player. A natural-born showman, he embraced everything about the postseason, making it his personal stage. That's how he became known as Mr. October. It wasn't handed to him; he earned it with consistent greatness under pressure.
Carlos Beltran, cool and reserved, is nothing like the flamboyant, outspoken Jackson in personal style. But with another postseason on the horizon, no player comes closer to Reggie's Mr. October profile than the Cardinals' quietly brilliant right fielder.
A .283 career hitter with a .496 slugging percentage for five teams across 16 seasons, Beltran has a history of transforming himself into a superstar in October. In 34 career postseason games, he has been a .363 hitter with a .782 slugging percentage. His 1.252 postseason OPS (on-base plus slugging) dwarfs his excellent .854 regular-season mark.
Beltran, who hit .357 with three homers and six RBIs in the 2012 postseason for the Redbirds, traces this extraordinary personal history to his playoff debut in 2004, after having been dealt to Houston at midseason following six productive seasons with the Royals.
In 12 playoff games against Atlanta and St. Louis, Beltran hit .435 with eight homers and 14 RBIs, scoring 21 runs. He stole six bases. But the star-studded Astros fell one win shy of a World Series date with Boston, losing Game 7 of the National League Championship Series to a Cardinals team led by Albert Pujols.
"All those years in Kansas City, I never experienced anything like it," Beltran said. "I wasn't expecting anything crazy. I just wanted to enjoy the moment and have fun. That Houston team went out and played hard and made good things happen. At the end of the day, I had a good experience."
The Cardinals kept Beltran out of the Fall Classic again in 2006 after he'd signed a free-agent deal with the Mets following the 2004 season.
Adam Wainwright, Beltran's teammate now, broke off a killer full-count curveball to freeze Beltran for the final out of Game 7 in the NLCS, leaving the bases loaded in a 3-1 St. Louis triumph. Beltran, who had homered three times in the series, took the disappointment with grace, praising Wainwright and the victors.
When the opportunity arose to join the team that twice had left him one win away from a Fall Classic, Beltran jumped aboard the Cardinals train in 2012 -- and again came up one game shy of the World Series. The Giants roared back to beat the Cards in Games 5, 6 and 7 of the NLCS en route to the World Series title.
In St. Louis' stunning triumph at the expense of the Nationals in the Division Series, Beltran was up to his old tricks, hitting .444 with two homers, four RBIs and five runs scored in five games.
At 36, having produced a characteristically superb season for the Redbirds, Beltran is about to resume his quest with another shot at the brass ring.
"That's what motivates every single player in the big leagues -- to try to win a championship and be the last team standing," Beltran said. "As a player, you have to understand that's not an easy thing to do. A lot of players have played great for 18, 20 years and not been able to win a championship.
"One reason I ended up in St. Louis was that it was a good chance for me to be able to win a championship. They showed what they could do [in 2011], and I would love it if I could celebrate another championship with them."
Beltran is surrounded by athletes who have lifted their performances when it matters most, such as David Freese and Yadier Molina.
Freese, a local kid who gave up the game and came back to it, emerged from the shadows in 2011 to claim the Most Valuable Player awards in the NLCS and the World Series during the Cardinals' improbable title run. Like Beltran, the third baseman has elevated his numbers dramatically in the postseason, hitting .345 and slugging .645 with six homers and 25 RBIs in 31 games.
Molina, who made his reputation as the game's best defensive catcher, is an offensive weapon in October. A .299 hitter in 63 postseason games, Molina has hit .341 in 15 World Series games. He drove in nine runs, while batting .333, in the 2011 Fall Classic triumph over Texas and crushed the decisive ninth-inning home run in that NLCS Game 7 at Shea Stadium in 2006 that left Beltran and the Mets brokenhearted. Molina hit .348 with six RBIs in that series.
B.J. Upton's debut season in Atlanta, alongside younger brother Justin, hasn't been anything like what he'd envisioned on a personal level, his offensive numbers at subterranean levels.
But going into the Division Series with a clean slate, the Braves' skillful center fielder might want to recall his own words from 2008 as he embarked on the postseason with the Rays: "Obviously, the numbers haven't been there and the production hasn't. But that's what the postseason is about. It's time to step it up."
And that is what he did, unloading seven homers and driving in 15 runs in 11 playoff games against the White Sox and Red Sox before the Rays fell in five World Series games to the Phillies.
When a player has experienced that level of success under pressure, it is something to draw upon emotionally. If you've done it once, you can do it again.
Torii Hunter used free agency to move to Detroit this season in large part because of the opportunity the abundantly talented Tigers gave him to claim an elusive World Series title after losing six of eight postseason series with the Twins and Angels -- through no fault of his own. The Tigers right fielder is a .305 career hitter with a .489 slugging percentage in 34 postseason games. He has four homers and 18 RBIs, scoring 19 runs, while playing his familiar Gold Glove-quality defense.
"When you get to the postseason," Hunter said, "you've got to stay cool mentally but play with fire, emotion, passion. Everything means so much, and you're facing nothing but top-shelf pitchers. But it's still the same game you've been playing all your life. You've got to let your talent flow."
David Ortiz, one of Hunter's teammates early in his career in Minnesota, has mastered that art. Like another popular "Pops" of an earlier era, Pittsburgh's Willie Stargell, Big Papi has been big-time, the picture of calm assurance while Red Sox Nation is in the grip of delirium.
In Boston's 2004 postseason ride to end all rides, Ortiz towered above everyone. He batted .400 with a 1.278 OPS in 14 games, going deep five times and driving in 19 runs. His MVP performance in the ALCS conquest of the Yankees -- homers in Games 4, 5 and 7, a total of 11 RBIs -- took its place with the greatest clutch displays in postseason history.
As Ortiz flows, it appears, so Boston goes. During the 2007 World Series championship run, he hit .370 with three homers and 10 RBIs in 14 games. But in his past two postseasons, 2008 and 2009, Big Papi was quiet, hitting .164 in 14 games. To reach another Fall Classic, the Sox clearly could use some vintage Ortiz in the mix.
New to Boston but not to the postseason, Mike Napoli has demonstrated a love of the bright lights of October as an Angel and Ranger. Batting .350 with two homers and 10 RBIs for Texas, Napoli would have been the likely World Series MVP in 2011 if the Rangers had found one more out in the ninth inning of Game 6 in St. Louis. But Freese, Molina and Co. assured that it simply wasn't in the stars -- or the cards.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.