ST. LOUIS -- Carlos Beltran played in his 2,060th regular-season game in the majors Monday night. He is the second most prodigious home-run hitter in postseason play, behind Babe Ruth, clouting one every 8.86 at-bats. He ranks third in postseason batting average at .363 behind Lou Brock and Paul Molitor.
But Beltran also ranks high in another category. He is listed behind only Detroit's Torii Hunter among active players for having participated in the most games without reaching the World Series.
Now, both have a chance to do that season, although there are several games to be won by either team before there is any Fall Classic talk. But Beltran and the Cardinals took another step on the path at Busch Stadium when the Cardinals' right fielder belted his first home run in a month, a two-run shot that snapped a 2-2 tie and led the Cardinals to a 4-3 win over the Washington Nationals.
Adam Wainwright had a major hand in this, too, as he reached the 18-victory plateau for the third time in his career (he has had 19 and 20 previously) and set a single-season high for strikeouts at 214 and innings pitched at 236 1/3 as he survived a rocky first inning. And so did four Cardinals relievers, the most notable being rookie Carlos Martinez, who escaped a nasty spot in the eighth.
The Cardinals, who ousted the Nationals from the National League playoffs last year, officially eliminated them from qualifying for the playoffs this season in front of a Busch crowd of 39,783. Meanwhile, the Cardinals reduced their magic number to four for clinching their first Central Division crown since 2009 and moved to a half-game behind Atlanta for the best record in the league.
That honor at the end of the week will give that team home-field advantage throughout the National League playoffs, but the Braves hold the tiebreaker if both teams finish with the same record because they won the season series from the Cardinals.
With both Pittsburgh and Cincinnati posting late-inning victories, the Cardinals' lead remained at two games over each with five to play, although both the Pirates and Reds cemented playoff berths with their wins and Washington's loss.
A revamped Cardinals bullpen, which did not include defrocked closer Edward Mujica, recorded the final six outs in order in the persons of Randy Choate (one) and Martinez (two) in the eighth and Kevin Siegrist (one) and Trevor Rosenthal (two) in the ninth. The save was rookie Rosenthal's first.
Washington right fielder Jayson Werth, one of the top hitters in the league since coming off the disabled list in early June, ripped a 439-foot, two-run homer off Wainwright in the first inning.
The homer was his 24th of the season and 20th since June 4. Denard Span, who had had a hitting streak snapped at 29 games last week, had singled to open the inning. This marked the second game in succession Wainwright had allowed two runs in the first.
"The first inning ... I never think my curveball is going to be hit out of the park," said Wainwright. "It's not a terrible pitch. And Denard Span hit a good, sinking fastball down and away for a hit. You've just got to do your best to limit the damage and keep pitching."
The Cardinals then scored one in the first against University of Illinois and Frontier League product Tanner Roark, who entered the game with a 7-0 mark and 1.08 earned run average. Matt Carpenter walked and, after Jon Jay lined and Beltran struck out, Matt Adams and Yadier Molina both singled, with Molina's hit delivering Carpenter with his league-leading 124th run.
The Cardinals tied the score in the fourth. With one out, David Freese and Daniel Descalso both singled to right and Shane Robinson blooped a single to right, scoring Freese.
Beltran, who hadn't homered since Aug. 24, a span of 91 at-bats, belted his 24th into the Cardinals' bullpen in right to give the Cardinals their first lead in the fifth. The home run followed a single to left by Jay, who extended his hitting streak to nine games, as Bryce Harper became the first outfielder to slip on the new grass installed at Busch.
It was the first homer Roark had given up in 45 2/3 innings in his major-league career.
"The last thing I was thinking about was home run," said Beltran.
Beltran was hitting third in a lineup changed just before game time when left fielder Matt Holliday again had to be scratched because of back spasms. Allen Craig still is out with a sprained left foot.
"I don't think (Beltran) feels he's got extra weight on his shoulders with (Holliday) and Allen both out," said Matheny. "But there are some things to make up in there. Someone's got to come through."
With two on in the eighth, lefthander Choate relieved Wainwright to face lefthanded-hitting Span, only a .218 batsman against southpaws. Span moved the runners over with a sacrifice and righthanded rookie Martinez emerged to face Ryan Zimmerman.
Zimmerman brought home one run on a groundout to shortstop but Martinez left the other runner stranded by retiring Werth on a grounder to third. "He's not afraid," said Beltran.
Siegrist got lefthanded-hitting Harper to ground out in the ninth and then Rosenthal struck out Ian Desmond and got Adam LaRoche to pop up.
Wainwright will have one more start before the end of the season and then Matheny would like to have him in position to start the first game of any playoff round.
"We should be over our weak periods and ready for our playoff push," said Wainwright.
Beltran sees that light at the end tunnel.
"Right now, we have a spot in the playoffs," he said. "But we're not thinking about that. We want to win the division. That's our main goal."
And then there is that other goal.
"That's a player's dream -- to have an opportunity to play in a World Series and win a World Series," said Beltran. "I've never been there so I don't know how it feels.
"Hopefully, this year we can talk about it."
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