There are times when Cardinals starting pitcher Adam Wainwright wonders what if the most important pitch of his career — "So far," he insisted — had landed somewhere other than safely in Yadier Molina's mitt.

He knows a base hit probably would have sent Carlos Beltran and the New York Mets to the World Series. He believes if that curveball had bent another way, it would probably have sent him somewhere, too.

Namely, elsewhere.

"I thought about that a few times," the righthander said during spring training. "I just think how differently could my career have gone if I don't come through right there. I think I'm getting traded. I think I'm getting booed out of town. I'm not sure that would happen, really, because the fan base in St. Louis is different than anywhere else. They have a great understanding of baseball. But you never know."

As it happened, Beltran took the curveball for a called third strike that ended Game 7 of the 2006 National League Championship Series with the bases loaded and the pennant in the Cardinals' hands, secured by a rookie pitcher.

That pitch forever binds the two players and helps define the divergent paths their careers have taken since — only to have the schedule and one achy elbow bring them back to the same city tonight, this time as teammates. Beltran, now the Cardinals' right fielder, will return to Citi Field as a visiting player for the first time since his seven-year, $119-million contract with the Mets expired last fall. Due to Jaime Garcia's ailing left elbow, the Cardinals have pushed the rotation up a day and brought a fitting twist to the game. The starter for Beltran's first game back in Queens is Wainwright.