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Clobbering an impossible pitch

HOUSTON -- It was a how-did-he-do-that moment, by a man riding a how-is-he-doing-this tidal wave.

Seventh inning. Tie game. Two teams and their October dreams hanging in the balance.

A man on the mound (Cardinals pitcher Julian Tavarez) who had allowed exactly one home run all season.

A man at the plate (ascending Astros supernova Carlos Beltran) traveling on a home-run-a-day October journey even he can't explain.

What happened next couldn't possibly have happened. But it did.

Julian Tavarez snapped off a fire-breathing slider. By the time it reached home plate, it was about three inches off the ground. And Beltran still swung at it.

If this were anybody else, this would have been strike three, thanks for playing. But in this place in this time, there isn't anybody else like Beltran. Not in this solar system, anyway.

Somehow, he propelled this baseball over everyone and everything. When it finally came back to earth in the Astros' bullpen, approximately 390 feet away, a ballpark rattled. And a pitcher filled up with rage and disbelief. And a fabulous playoff series had just gotten a little more fabulous.

This was how the winning run scored in the Astros' 6-5 win over the Cardinals on Sunday, on Beltran's astonishing swing of the bat.

This was how a National League Championship Series that once seemed so firmly in the grip of the Cardinals suddenly transformed itself back into a tie, at two wins apiece.

Next up, they will play Game 5 on Monday night in a ballpark where the Astros are now 21-1 since Aug. 23. So suddenly, these Astros don't look much like a team in trouble anymore.

History tells us they are the 16th team to lose the first two games of a best-of-seven series on the road and then come back to win the next two at home. History tells us that of the previous 15 teams, nine won the series.

This should not be happening to an Astros team that was four games under .500 with only 46 games left in its season. But it is happening, in real life.

And now, apparently, Beltran is planning to hit a home run every single day for the rest of October. Which would be just fine with that team he plays for.

"I'll ride his coat tails," said Jeff Bagwell, "as long as I can ride them."

Well, if he is, we'd suggest he fasten his seat belt and put his seat back in the full upright and locked position -- because this is one crazy ride this guy is on.

Men have been playing postseason baseball games for more than a century now. No one had ever hit a home run in five consecutive postseason games before -- until Beltran came along.

The Astros have been playing baseball for 43 seasons. And only once, in nearly 7,000 games, had any Astro ever homered in five consecutive regular-season games (Cliff Johnson, way back in 1975) -- until Carlos Beltran came along and did it in five straight October games.

Sunday was the ninth postseason game of Beltran's life -- all of them in the last two weeks. But already, he has hit eight home runs.

That's as many as Joe DiMaggio hit in 51 postseason games. It's as many as Frank Robinson hit in 26 postseason games. It's as many as Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Ted Williams and Stan Musial hit combined in 72 postseason games.

So how hot is Beltran? Better high-five him with a pot holder.

He was asked Sunday if he can ever remember having eight games like this -- any time, any place, any team, any season. He shook his head and said just one word: "No."

In the NLCS, he's hitting .538 (7-for-13) and slugging 1.538. Since the postseason began, he's hitting .486 (17-for-35) and slugging 1.257, with 17 runs scored, one shy of Barry Bonds' record for most in a single postseason. When Beltran has put the ball in play in this postseason, he has spewed out more extra-base hits (11) than outs (10).

"I don't know that I'd use the word, 'perfect,' to describe too many people," said his almost-as-hot teammate, Lance Berkman (.467, 3 HR, 8 RBI in this series). "But I might use that with him right now."

And just when you thought he had run out of ways to amaze you, he saved his greatest trick for a special Sunday evening in October.

To listen to other baseball players talk about this game-winning home run they'd seen him hit, you would never have known they play the same sport as he does. This man didn't just hit a pitch that couldn't be hit. He hit it into what might well be an unforgettable place in the lore of a team that now can smell the World Series.

  • "I think the umpire was reaching back into his pocket for another ball," said Bagwell, "because that ball was in the dirt."

  • "I don't know how he hit that ball," grumbled a still-stunned Tavarez, an hour later. "Barry Bonds is the best player in baseball, and I don't think Barry Bonds would have hit that pitch."

  • "Barry wouldn't have hit it," chuckled Craig Biggio, "because Barry might not have swung at it. But that just shows you: Even when Carlos expands the zone by that much, he's still dangerous. You're not supposed to hit that pitch out."

  • "I wasn't believing what he did," said Tavarez. "I was watching that ball after he hit it. I was watching it going and going. When I watched it be gone, I just couldn't believe it."

    Tavarez was in such a transcendent state of disbelief, in fact, he admitted he totally "lost my cool" in the minutes afterward.

    Moments later, he overthrew a 3-and-0 fastball that almost gonged Bagwell in the helmet. On the pitch after that, he bounced a slider for a wild pitch. A few minutes later, he drilled Jeff Kent with an 0-2 pitch to load the bases. And after escaping the inning, he launched into an epic dugout tantrum, firing his glove, smacking the dugout phone and firing a ball bag up the tunnel.

    "I tried to calm down, but I wasn't able to," Tavarez said. "I started to throw stuff. I got upset with myself. I think most Latin guys would have done that. That's just how we are. We're very emotional."

    This was what one swing of the bat by Beltran inspired. Who knows what's next?

    Cardinals manager Tony La Russa was asked if Beltran had reached the point where it was time to consider giving him "the Barry Bonds treatment."

    "Well," La Russa replied, "that depends on what you think 'the Bonds treatment' is. Our Bonds treatment was, we challenged him. We don't like telling our pitchers they're not good enough to get hitters out. You treat him with respect."

    Besides, La Russa grinned, "we got him out -- one time. And that ball he hit out -- that ball was on the ground. That's a tough one to figure."

    You would think the man who hit it would have it figured, at least. But the man who hit it is having just as hard a time as the rest of us trying to understand what is happening to him here, on the biggest stage he has ever played on.

    "Right now, it seems like every time I hit a ball, it's going out of the ballpark," Beltran said. "But I'm not trying to do something like that. ... I don't even consider myself a power hitter. That's the way I feel. I keep telling my wife I'm not a power hitter. And she says, 'Yes, you are.' "

    That is one smart wife Beltran has there. Yes, he is. His eight home runs tie Bonds' record for most in any single postseason. Except it took Bonds 17 games and 45 at-bats to set his record in 2002. It has taken Beltran less than half that many games -- and 10 fewer at-bats.

    "It's nice to break a record like that, but I'm not thinking like that," Beltran said. "I'm just thinking about how to beat the other team. It means a lot to do something Barry Bonds did, because Barry Bonds is the greatest player in the game. But I'm just trying to do my job, with everything going on right now."

    What is going on right now is that he has led his team to within two wins of a trip to the World Series. What is also going on right now is that he is staging one sensational marketing campaign for himself.

    Unless you've been spending way too much time following those WNBA playoffs, you obviously know that Beltran will head into free agency when his postseason work is done. He is 27 years old. And his chances of future employment appear excellent.

    "I watch how easy he does things," Bagwell said. "The way he runs. His throwing arm. His range in the outfield. This kid has got it all. I wish I was his agent."

    For now, though, he will settle just for being Beltran's teammate. That's an honor he might not get to enjoy beyond this season, given the absurd price tag agent Scott Boras is likely to slap on Beltran's forehead. But business affairs can wait for another day, another time.

    This is playoff time -- when we are dazzled not by dollar signs but by mind-blowing swings of the bat by the boys of autumn. Beltran unfurled one of those swings on Sunday. And he'll remember it for the rest of his life.

    "I'm amazed at what I'm doing," he said. "But at the same time, I don't feel pressure, because this is a situation I always wanted to be in. This is just a dream come true."

    Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.