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Senior Baseball Columnist

Cardinals showing discipline, chemistry, execution of a champion again


David Freese (top) and teammates are working the pitchers well and getting good pitches to hit. (Getty Images)  
David Freese (top) and teammates are working the pitchers well and getting good pitches to hit. (Getty Images)  

SAN FRANCISCO -- Carlos Beltran says he didn't sleep the night his Cardinals mugged the Nationals. Now, 48 hours later and having taken down the Giants to start this NL Championship Series, you listen to him and you figure it might be November before the man sleeps again.

"I'm still going like this in my room," Beltran said, shaking his head from side-to-side with the disbelieving look of a man who has just discovered an extra $1,000 in his bank account.

Now 35 and 15 years into his big-league career, Beltran is still dreaming about playing in his first World Series. Signing with the Cardinals last winter might have been his winning lottery ticket.

"It's incredible how we're able to put together at-bats," Beltran marveled, and the Ghost of Ted Williams approves of that statement.

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In administering the most inhumane beating of Madison Bumgarner since ... well, since the Reds left town last week, the Cardinals set themselves up for a 6-4 victory in Game 1 and set the early tone of this NLCS from the second inning on.

That tone looks and sounds an awful lot like what the Nationals saw and heard as Game 5 went into the Potomac River on them with a large cement block roped to it.

St. Louis strings together glowing at-bats one after another, the way Christmas lights line up across the strand over neighborhood garages. It is some of the prettiest work you ever saw ... as long as you're not the schmoe on the mound, the way Bumgarner was ... or Drew Storen ... or Kris Medlen.

They wait. They watch. They evaluate. And when the right pitch comes ... man, do they pounce.

David Freese, St. Louis' very own Mr. October, drilled a pedestrian, full-count fastball into the left-field seats for a two-run homer in the second. Beltran, St. Louis' other very own Mr. October, sent Bumgarner to the showers by clobbering a mediocre slider for another two-run homer in the fourth to extend the Cardinals' lead to 6-0.

The other night, in the shadows of the White House, Freese and Yadier Molina each was remarkably restrained in taking a base on balls to help set up the ninth-inning fireworks.

All of this is talent. Much of it is innate.

And among the other miscellaneous components, there is one aspect that should not be overlooked.

"We shouldn't be surprised, with Mark McGwire as the hitting coach," Giants general manager Brian Sabean was saying of these fierce Cardinals at-bats when we talked the other day. "People remember him as a home run hitter, but his at-bats ... he was a very good hitter who worked deep into counts."

During McGwire's three seasons as hitting coach, beginning in 2010, the Cardinals cumulatively have produced a .269 batting average, 2,263 runs scored and a .337 on-base percentage.

Each of those numbers is the best in the NL during that time.

The pride, the passion, the attention to detail. ...

"Big Mac," Freese said. "Absolutely. He preaches fighting, grinding it out. He's done so much for us keeping that confidence, keeping that drive.

"We're so fortunate he's back in this game. For him to be my hitting coach, you've got to be kidding."

"One hundred percent," center fielder Jon Jay said. "He talks about having quality at-bats, and how when you have quality at-bats, good things happen. He preaches it all the time. He stays on top of us. Sometimes you don't feel good, but as long as you battle."

These Cardinals battle. They fight. They claw. Each hitter in their lineup leads into the next as smartly as one chapter to the next in your favorite novel.

"We've had two years in a row now where I think we've had the best offense in the National League, or close to it, by whatever metric you want to use," Lance Berkman, currently out with a knee injury, said in the Cardinals clubhouse. "One reason we won the World Series last year is because we were a better American League team than the Rangers.

"We were an even better lineup when we got to use the designated hitter, with Allen Craig. And particularly the way Daniel [Descalso] and Pete [Kosma] are swinging the bats, it makes it tough."

The Giants' unenviable task is to figure out a way to slow this train, to economize on the pitches they throw and not get caught going deep into too many counts. Oh, it's not an impossible task, and nobody is about to write the Giants off after only one game in what still likely will be a best-of-7 brawl (especially the way the rotations on both sides are scuffling right now). Not the way they ambushed the Reds.

But one thing that needs to be said up front as this series lifts off is that this St. Louis team has achieved the near impossible. Even as the defending World Series champion, it is sneaky good.

Berkman pointed to the emergence of hard-throwing rookies Joe Kelly and Trevor Rosenthal and the acquisition of Edward Mujica -- St. Louis GM John Mozeliak's latest midseason stroke of genius -- and the recent return of Chris Carpenter as evidence of the continued evolution of the 2012 Cardinals.

"People are going to look at the Cardinals and say we only won 88 games and we were the second wild-card team," Berkman said. "But if we had this team all year, we would have won 100 games, easy, and we would have won the division, no problem."

After the Cards built a 6-0 lead and starter Lance Lynn tired, six relievers combined to throw 5 1/3 sparkling, shutout innings. They allowed one hit. And though it took much of the season, this bullpen now is constructed in a strikingly similar way to the lineup: There are specific purposes and plans, and each man leads to the next and wins get built like a Chrysler moving along an assembly line. Kelly, Rosenthal, Mujica, Mitchell Boggs, Jason Motte.

"Essentially, if we have the lead after five innings, we have five guys to come at you who throw 100 miles an hour," Berkman says. "That's a tough task."

It is the task standing between the Giants and their second World Series title in three seasons. And if San Francisco fails, then it is the task that will stand between the Tigers and their first title since 1984, or the Yankees and their first since 2009.

For a team that spent so much of the year as an afterthought (outside of St. Louis, at least) ... it's time to get with the program.

"The character of this team is exceptional," Berkman said. "It is as good a group of gamers as I've ever been around. It is 100 percent unfazed by pressure. And it's not just one or two guys. It's everybody."

Then there is Beltran, the free agent who signed in the wake of Albert Pujols' defection. He has been amazing all summer, and again in October, his game is coming through in brilliant high definition. The guy now owns the best at-bats-per-homer ratio in postseason history (7.71), even outpacing Babe Ruth (8.60).

He will tell you that it has been a dream since his first day in the majors to play in a World Series. He was just telling his wife Saturday that after losing to these Cardinals in the NLCS when he was with Houston in 2004, he thinks maybe this is the year he finally gets over the hump.

Berkman, a veteran himself, talked about how it is natural for focus to sharpen even more when the sands are nearly through a player's hourglass.

"I understand that winning a World Series is not an easy thing to do," Beltran said. "Look what happened to Texas. They've been to the World Series twice now. That shows how hard it is to win."

But fueled by beating the Braves in this year's wild-card game -- a game Beltran said must have felt like Game 7 of the World Series -- he remains wide awake in dreamland.

"I came here with one reason and one mentality," he said. "And that was to be able to play in October."

Is he ever. And the Cardinals, too.


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