That guy you see gliding through the outfield, and tearing holes in the sky from both sides of the plate, and going first to third with such grace, is a familiar face. He no longer has the word "overpaid'' preceding his name, or the letters DL following his name. He is Cardinals right fielder Carlos Beltran, and although he never really left, he is definitely back.
If it weren't for Matt Kemp, Beltran, 35, would be the most valuable player in the National League six weeks into the season. If it weren't for the remarkable Josh Hamilton, May would have been all about Beltran. Not only has he replaced the 2011 production of Albert Pujols in the Cardinals' lineup, he has greatly exceeded it while helping take St. Louis to the front of the National League Central, all while dazzling his new teammates.
"When I ran out on the field with him the first time in spring training,'' said Cardinals third baseman David Freese, "I knew he was the most complete player I'd ever played with.''
Beltran is leading the NL in home runs with 13; he's tied for second in RBIs (32) and he's also second in slugging (.634). In one game, he hit two homers, a double and a triple, which was never done by the great Stan Musial (who had 103 extra-base hits in 1948), and had been done by only one other Cardinals player -- Johnny Mize -- in their rich history. In one week, Beltran hit two homers in a game batting left-handed, and hit two homers in a game batting right-handed, which had never been done in a three-day span in major league history.
We have seen this act before. In the 2004 postseason while with Houston, Beltran suddenly became Mickey Mantle, hitting eight home runs, playing center field with an elegance and skill rarely seen, and running the bases with the greatest of ease. It was that postseason that got Beltran a seven-year, $119 million contract from the Mets, a deal which brought highlight moments but only one playoff appearance and multiple trips to the disabled list.
"I was sitting on the other bench in 2006, and he was the best player I have ever seen,'' said Cardinals second baseman Skip Schumaker. "Now that he's on our team, I realize how smooth he is at everything he does: defense, running the bases, hitting. It is so effortless. It is so fun to watch. He is the complete opposite of me, where everything is so forced. He is so impressive. You don't know how good he is until you see him every day. And it's everything he does, even the way he catches a fly ball. It's like Andruw Jones and Ken Griffey Jr. in their prime, it's just so effortless. You never, ever see him look bad.''
The snapshot of Beltran in New York is the called third strike he took on a curveball from Adam Wainwright to end Game 7 of the 2006 National League Championship Series. Now he is Wainwright's teammate. "Really good? He's really, really good,'' said Wainwright. "He is so smooth. The way he goes after a fly ball, and catches it down by his waist, with his glove almost closed, you don't even think there's enough room in there for the ball to go in. He makes it look ridiculously easy. His swing is the same way. He has hit a lot of bullets right at people this year. He's hitting .300, but if feels like he's hitting .600 because every time we need a hit at a big time, he gets one [Beltran is 6-for-11 with 13 RBIs with two outs and runners in scoring position]. He is a freak.''
Cardinals first baseman Lance Berkman, who was a teammate of Beltran in Houston, seemed mildly amused by the discussion of Beltran's hot start. "He's just a really good player, and always has been,'' Berkman said. "It's funny. An elite player has some things happen to him for three or four years, like injuries, then he becomes an elite player again, and people ask, 'What's going on here?' Just look at the back of his baseball card. He is as complete a player as I've ever played with. He does everything well, and he looks good doing it. When you look at what a player is supposed to do, he's about as good as it gets.''
When you look at what a player is supposed to do, he's about as good as it gets.
”-- Cardinals first baseman
Lance Berkman on Beltran
Indeed. With two more stolen bases, Beltran will join the 300-homer, 300-steal club, of which the members include Barry Bonds, Willie Mays, Alex Rodriguez, Andre Dawson, Bobby Bonds, Reggie Sanders and Steve Finley. After receiving the NL Player of the Week award for the week ending May 13, Beltran was appreciative, but not overly impressed with the remarkable production he has had this season. "For me, it has always been a health issue,'' he said. "When you are healthy, you can do the things that you are used to doing. When I am healthy, I feel very comfortable when I am at the plate. It really helps hitting in this lineup, we can do damage 1-to-8 in the order. That's a great thing for a hitter when you don't feel like you have to have a great game for the team to win that game.''
The Cardinals have scored the most runs in the NL this year in part because Beltran's signing as a free agent has given the Cards one too many everyday players, meaning they have a really good hitter getting a rest every night, be it Beltran, Berkman, Matt Holliday or Allen Craig. Beltran's knee has been a little tight of late, so he's played sparingly in the last week. But if can stay healthy, there's no reason to think he won't remain highly productive.
Freese was asked recently how things were going with the Cardinals. "All is good," he said, smiling. "We have Carlos Beltran.''