ST. LOUIS - Jessica Beltran remembered the precise time -- 4:10 a.m. -- when she was awakened by her husband, sitting up in bed, arms extended, hands pressed together, with his fingers wrapped around a bat that existed only in his mind's eye.
"What are you doing?" she recalled asking him through the darkness.
"I'm practicing my grip," said Carlos Beltran, who hours later reached the summit of a climb that took 16 seasons.
Beltran, one of the greatest clutch performers of all time, now will grace the game's grandest stage for the first time in his illustrious career. By virtue of the Cardinals' 9-0 victory over the Dodgers in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series on Friday night, Beltran finally will play in the World Series.
"The team has been on a mission to get me to this point, and I really appreciate that," Beltran said afterward, his jersey still soaked with champagne. "They really want me to win a World Series. They really want me to play in a World Series. It just really means a lot. They care and we all care about each other."
The Cardinals adopted Beltran's personal quest as their own, speaking from the start of last season about giving the eight-time All-Star his first opportunity to play in the World Series.
The mere prospect of getting there kept the 36-year-old Beltran up through much of the night before Game 6.
On occasion, especially before big games, Beltran visualizes facing the next day's pitcher. In this case it was Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw, whose dominance this season is worthy of a Cy Young Award.
"I just couldn't sleep," Beltran said. "I was thinking it over, thinking and thinking, going through a lot of scenarios in my mind. It's incredible the power of the mind sometimes . . . It's like I envision myself having success before it happens."
Success has trailed Beltran wherever he's gone, including his stint with the Mets from 2005 to 2011 before he was traded to the Giants for pitching prospect Zack Wheeler.
Since breaking in with the Royals in 1998, he has crafted a career that someday will merit Hall of Fame consideration.
"He's the definition of an elite baseball player," teammate Matt Carpenter said. "He plays the game on a different level than most people do. We all kid about it because he makes things look so easy that it almost looks like he's not trying. Nothing gets to him."
In New York, Beltran's legacy has been condensed to one moment of infamy. He carried the Mets throughout the postseason in 2006, but in Game 7 of the NLCS against the Cardinals, Beltran took a called third strike for the final out, caught off guard by Adam Wainwright's nasty curveball. But everywhere else, Beltran's postseason legacy is beyond question.
It began in 2004 with his trade from the moribund Royals to the contending Astros, who watched Beltran flourish when given his first taste of the playoffs. He hit eight homers and scored 21 runs in 12 games in 2004, both of which were the most ever in a single postseason. He had 47 total bases that year, which ranks second.
Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr. said his team was lucky to get past Beltran and the Astros that season. "We couldn't get him out," DeWitt said.
For Beltran, it was just the beginning. Among players with at least 150 plate appearances in the postseason, Beltran ranks third with a .724 slugging percentage, behind only Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. His 16 homers are good for eighth on the all-time list.
This October, his second with the Cardinals, Beltran hasn't missed a beat. He leads all players in the 2013 postseason with 12 RBIs, including two on Friday night to help clinch the series against the Dodgers.
A year after taking a 3-1 lead over the Giants in the NLCS but falling short in Game 7, Beltran and the Cardinals are headed to the World Series. When the final out was made, he sprinted in from rightfield, joining his teammates in a big red mass of bodies in front of the pitcher's mound.
Tribute to excellence
"All I'm thinking about is how hard I have fought through my career, the ups and downs," said Beltran, a native of Puerto Rico. "I think about my family, I think about my dad, I think about my mom, I think about my people, my country, my town where I grew up, everybody that has helped me."
At second base, workers scurried to erect a stage. Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak stood before a national television audience and repeated what had been said by the players countless times since spring training last season.
They wanted this for Beltran.
"I'm thrilled for Carlos," DeWitt said. "The guy's had one of the greatest postseason careers ever."
Beltran roamed the field, his eyes wide open, sifting through the faces he passed in search of Jessica and their two daughters. Finally, he found them near the Cardinals' dugout, and together they walked back to the stage.
The sellout crowd remained mostly intact, a five-story wall of sound, their roars flooding the field. As Beltran soaked in the moment, his wife told the story of finding her husband awake in their dark room, anxious to clinch a trip to the World Series.
"So," Jessica Beltran said, "I think it paid off, right?"
The Cardinals retreated to their clubhouse, where they waited for every player to make it back from the field. Once assembled as a group, they gathered around Beltran, who is viewed as a mentor.
Said Carpenter: "If there's a guy in this room that deserves it, it's him."
Beltran thanked his teammates for pushing him to this summit, then challenged them to reach the next one by winning the World Series.
With that, the first champagne bottle was popped and Beltran, at long last, tasted the sweetness of playing for a championship.
"The dream was good," Beltran said. "But reality is always better."