When Carlos Beltran is locked in from both sides of home plate, he can be almost as difficult to unlock as the keys to universal or political harmony.
Beltran is, from all appearances, locked in at the moment.
With homers in three of his past four games -- on the season, he has a National League high of 18 -- along with 46 RBIs, Beltran is giving the Cardinals robust early returns on their two-year, $26 million free-agent investment. That is close to the king's ransom Albert Pujols is drawing for each of his 10 seasons with the Angels.
Pujols, finally heating up in his new environment, ultimately might prove to be as irreplaceable as all the experts maintained when he departed the heartland for the Pacific Ocean breezes.
But through the first 10 weeks of the 2012 season, Beltran -- hitting .290 and slugging .594 with a .378 on-base mark -- clearly has been the superior force.
Beltran makes it clear that when he elected to return to the Show Me State -- his career began in Kansas City -- it was with no intention of making the locals forget King Albert. Carlos came to contribute to a quality club, not dominate.
After 14 seasons, at 35, Beltran -- a gift to the game from Manati, Puerto Rico -- yearns to scale the one summit that has eluded him, a journey culminating in the Fall Classic.
"That's what motivates every single player in the big leagues -- to try to win a championship and be the last team standing," Beltran said. "As a player, you have to understand that's not an easy thing to do. A lot of players have played great for 18, 20 years and [have] not been able to win a championship.
"One reason I ended up in St. Louis was that it was a good chance for me to be able to win a championship. They showed what they could do last year, and I would love it if I could celebrate another championship with them."
Beltran has been as close as you can get, a classic Game 7 in the 2006 NL Championship Series that ended with one of the most dangerous October weapons in history -- Beltran -- looking at a killer of a third-strike curveball by Adam Wainwright out of the St. Louis bullpen. It left the bases loaded and an eerie silence inside Shea Stadium.
As the Cards rode the momentum to a World Series conquest of the Tigers, Beltran and the Mets were left to ponder the cruel twists of fate.
"That was tough," said Beltran. "We had a great season, and then it was over."
Given his history, with a few more postseason appearances -- to the delight of the Cardinal Nation -- Beltran could be known as Mr. October II.
His two postseasons, in 2004 with Houston and the Mets in '06, have been positively Reggie-esque. In 22 games, Beltran has a .366/.485/.817 slash line for an astounding 1.302 OPS. He has 11 homers, 22 RBIs and 31 runs scored.
Beltran traces his success on the grand stage to his initial postseason venture with the 2004 Astros. After pounding the Braves into submission in the NL Division Series with a .455 average, four homers, nine RBIs and nine runs scored, Beltran clubbed the Cards for four more homers and five RBIs, scoring 12 runs and batting .417.
"All those [seven] years in Kansas City, I never experienced anything like it," Beltran said. "I wasn't expecting anything crazy. I just wanted to enjoy the moment and have fun. That Houston team went out and played hard and made good things happen. At the end of the day, I had a good experience."
St. Louis, at home, established a trend in subduing Houston in Game 7 of that NLCS.
Beltran's history of playoff mashing is what made his fateful duel with Wainwright two years later so stunning.
In the aftermath of that full-count curveball for the ages, Beltran handled the distress in a dignified manner that would have made his hero growing up -- countryman Roberto Clemente -- proud. Standing at his locker, clear-eyed and even-voiced, Beltran answered every question.
"I've had so many beautiful moments in my career, in my life," Beltran said. "This was one of the bad ones I'll remember forever. It's tough. It's difficult. I'll have to live with that. But that's life."
Beltran had three homers, four RBIs and nine runs scored in that '06 classic against the Redbirds, batting .296.
Clemente died in a plane crash on Dec. 31, 1972, attempting to fly relief goods into earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua. Beltran has worn No. 15 most of his career and is No. 3 in St. Louis, but No. 21 remains in his heart.
"What Roberto did in the game of baseball means a lot -- especially to us in Puerto Rico," Beltran said. "You think of kind of being like him, of course. But when you get to this point in your career, you've got to be your own person; I've got to be me."
Injuries derailed Beltran's 2009 and '10 seasons with the Mets, who dealt him at the non-waiver Trade Deadline last July to the Giants. He has visited the disabled list five times in his career, but nobody who saw him rebound from a horrific head-on collision with teammate Mike Cameron in the San Diego outfield on Aug. 11, 2005, could ever question Beltran's toughness. Cameron was lost for the season with multiple head injuries; Beltran went on to play 151 games.
Skip Schumaker, the Cards' versatile veteran, has seen Beltran follow now-injured Lance Berkman and fit right into the team's carefully woven fabric.
"I didn't know how good Berkman and Beltran would be in the clubhouse," Schumaker said. "They've given us terrific leadership."
While he's not as outgoing as Berkman, Beltran values the opportunity to mentor younger Redbirds.
"It doesn't mean anything if I play the game 14 years and don't share anything with anybody," Beltran said. "I like to share what works for me and, hopefully, help some teammates out.
"Good chemistry creates winning. You have to get along on a team in order to perform. When there's no chemistry, people aren't happy and don't contribute the way they can."
A five-tool athlete with three Gold Glove Awards, Beltran spent most of his career in center field, but like his boyhood hero Clemente, he's a right fielder now. Among active players with at least 1,000 innings in center, Beltran is third in range factor (2.79) behind Adam Jones (2.93) and Torii Hunter (2.80).
Beltran had his monster seasons -- 38 homers and 40 steals in 2004, eight seasons with 100-plus RBIs, seven with 100 or more runs scored. But what drives him these days is that lustrous jewelry that goes to champions.
"We have a good team here, no doubt," Beltran said. "They made me feel welcome in Spring Training. I know what I need to do to put myself in a position to win. I'm not going to have to be a person I'm not. I just need to be myself."
If he gets to a Game 7 in a future postseason, Beltran should feel comfortable with the Cardinals, knowing what they've done to him in the past.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.