2012 NLCS: Why All the Pressure Is on Matt Holliday If Carlos Beltran Is Out

Avi Wolfman-ArentCorrespondent IIOctober 18, 2012

ST LOUIS, MO - OCTOBER 17:  Matt Holliday #7 of the St. Louis Cardinals waits on deck in the sixth inning while taking on the San Francisco Giants in Game Three of the National League Championship Series at Busch Stadium on October 17, 2012 in St Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

There is no subtlety in the way Matt Holliday plays baseball.

The Cardinal left fielder is an anvil of a man, 235 pounds of bench-pressed muscle set atop a hulking 6'4" frame.

You can see it when he bludgeons balls into the gap, or lurches after them in the field. You can see it in the glisten of his shaven head. You can see it when he barrels toward the second base bag in full locomotive fury.

That Holliday has the on-field charisma of an Easter Island statue only adds to the effect. Holliday isn't the type to emote much, and from the chronic sobriety etched into his jaw line you'd never know that he's become the most talked about player in this year's NLCS.

But he has, and with injury clouds now hovering over fellow outfielder Carlos Beltran, the spotlight on Holliday will only grow hotter.

Should Beltran miss significant time with what early reports are calling a "strained left knee," Holliday becomes the last remaining big bopper in St. Louis' lineup. Or at least the only one with an All-Star pedigree.

That might not mean much over a three-week stretch in mid-July, but in October—where fans expect big results from big names—the onus on Holliday will be palpable. The burly outfielder has done well over his nine-year career to deflect attention—at least as well as a player with MVP talent and Popeye biceps can.

He won't have that luxury any more.

Holliday's foray into the limelight started with his tardy—and perhaps dirty—attempt to break up a double play in the first inning of Game 2, a play that eventually caused San Francisco second baseman Marco Scutaro to leave the contest with an ailing hip.

That now-infamous semi-slide turned Holliday into a lightning rod, with speculation running rampant that the Giants would offer some sort of retaliation in Game 3.

They didn't, at least not as far as anyone can tell. And it seemed, for a moment, as if Holliday might recede into the background of this series.

Then the Beltran injury.

We won't know the extent of Beltran's woe until later. There's a chance he may even play in Thursday's Game 4.

But if he doesn't, and if this lingers, the Cardinals, in some small-but-vital psychological sense, become Matt Holliday's team.

I realize how unfair that sounds. St. Louis was supposed to have shed its star-centric identity when Albert Pujols departed last offseason.

And indeed, the 2012 Cardinals were an ensemble offense, relying on the depth provided by lesser-knowns like David Freese, Allen Craig, Jon Jay and Yadier Molina.

Now those guys aren't wallflowers, but none of them have ever finished among the top five in MVP voting or scored a $100-million contract or eclipsed 35 home runs in a season.

Matt Holliday has done all of those things. So has Carlos Beltran. And because of that, they exist on a higher plane of ballplayer.

Molina, Freese and even Craig might be as valuable or productive as Holliday at this point in his career.

Doesn't matter.

Public perception in the playoffs doesn't revolve around numbers or even logic. If it did, Alex Rodriguez's ongoing slump wouldn't be such a scandal.

Postseason baseball is about distilling all the aspirations and insecurities we've accumulated over a 162-game season and projecting them onto the players we consider stars. The higher the Q rating, the bigger the target.

Holliday is hitting just .222 this postseason and has started the NLCS on a 1-for-12 slide.

With St. Louis playing well and Beltran acting as his buffer, the left fielder's struggles went largely undetected.

Now the curtain has lifted, and the man in the center of the St. Louis lineup will have to answer for his team's fate.

Mr. Holliday, October beckons.