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Beltran raises game when stakes highest

Beltran raises game when stakes highest

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WASHINGTON -- There isn't much point in being a big-time, big-game, red-light player without the opportunity to play in the biggest games Major League Baseball has to offer, after all.

So when Carlos Beltran became a free agent last offseason, he took a personal inventory. He was about to turn 35. He had made well over $100 million in his career. He had made All-Star teams, won a Rookie of the Year Award, gotten some MVP support over the years. He had established himself as one of the most dangerous postseason hitters of his generation, but he hadn't participated since 2006. And he'd never been to the World Series.

That crystallized his priorities.

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Wild Card vs. Nationals

"Chance to win. That's it," Beltran said after the Cardinals ran through a light workout at Nationals Park on Tuesday in preparation for Wednesday afternoon's Game 3 of the National League Division Series.

The Indians reportedly offered more money. The Rays were said to be interested. The Red Sox were said to have kicked the tires. In the end, he took a two-year, $26 million deal from the Cardinals.

St. Louis needs to win two of the next three to advance, bringing Beltran one step closer to his dream.

This is a guy who came into October with 11 home runs in 22 postseason games. He added two in Monday's Game 2 against the Nationals at Busch Stadium. He's been bothered by a bad back, and he batted just .236 after the All-Star break, but those two shots seemed to announce that he's back.

At least his teammates are hoping so.

Said catcher Yadier Molina: "We need it. We need him to get hot. If he gets hot, the whole team is going to get hot, too."

Added first baseman Allen Craig: "That's something that he's done all year, just put the team on his back. He's capable of that every night, and to see him swinging the bat well is awesome."

Said Beltran: "It's fun, brother. We work hard in the offseason, in Spring Training and in the regular season to be in this type of situation. Who doesn't love to play in these type of games, where you're fighting to win a championship? Especially in my case, when I haven't had that opportunity. You never know when is the last time you're going to be in this situation, so I'm just trying to enjoy it."

The Cardinals, of course, are the defending World Series champions. So Beltran can look around the clubhouse and see plenty of guys who have World Series rings. Manager Mike Matheny believes that having an established star who doesn't have one can help a team.

"It's always good to have that veteran presence that has not quite won the ring yet," Matheny said. "You saw last year, the Cardinals really rallied around Rafael Furcal, who had been in the postseason so many times.

"It means a lot to them, there's no question. These guys, they are motivated to excel. That's a message we have had since the beginning, striving for excellence. It's good for the guys who have never been there, but it's not any less important to the guys who already have a couple of World Series rings. It's about being the best you can and trying to develop into something special, and that's really what they are doing."

Beltran can't explain why he has been able to elevate his game when the results matter the most.

"I would say, probably, you concentrate more," he said. "Every pitch, you try to be in the game. You try to focus on seeing the ball well. But it's hard to point to one thing. Right now I'm just seeing the ball well and have been getting good results."

It's not that his aches and pains have magically disappeared.

"It's the same, man. Right now I don't think there are many players who are 100 percent," he said. "But right now I don't think it's time to focus on that. It's time to focus on going out there and doing what you can to help the team win and move on to the next series.

"I come to the ballpark every day. I prepare myself. There are going to be days when I feel better than others, but that's baseball."

He's equally philosophical about his second-half struggles.

"In this game you have to understand that when you play 162 games, you're not going to be perfect. You're going to go through ups and downs," he said. "If there's something good I have, it's the mentality of coming here and working hard every day, trying to put myself in a position where I can help the team.

"I understand that you're going to go through good stretches and bad stretches at times. I'm just happy to be able to do good now. What happened in the regular season, that's in the past. So we're living in the moment."

So far, so good. The Cardinals have evened the series and like their chances going forward.

"I'm just going out there and trying to help the team any way I can," Beltran said. "I would love to go out there and have that opportunity, but at the same time, I understand that it's hard to win a championship. So we just have to approach this game by game.

"It's great [to be back in the playoffs] after all these years. I'm grateful. It's a great thing for me, the stage I'm at in my career. I was looking to sign with a team that would give me this kind of an opportunity. I wanted a chance to be with a team that had the opportunity to win a championship. They were the champions last year, and this year we have a chance to maybe repeat."

Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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