ATLANTA - The Mets were officially eliminated from contention on Sunday night, but don't tell Carlos Beltran the rest of this season is meaningless. Not for him, and not for the Mets if they plan on having their $119-million centerfielder in playing shape by the start of spring training next year.
The bone bruise below his right knee, while still there to a smaller degree, has not been an issue for Beltran in his first six games back from a 10-week stay on the disabled list. What has troubled Beltran, however, is settling into the batter's box again.
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The Mets' most dangerous hitter, and only five-tool threat, has felt "a little lost" at the plate and is working overtime in the indoor cages to get that old feeling back. Even when Beltran does make solid contact, it's a fleeting moment.
He is batting .250 (5-for-20) with a double since his return and also homered for the first time on Saturday. As for last night, Beltran went 0-for-3 with a walk and had plenty of chances to chase down balls in the outfield during the Mets' 6-0 loss to the Braves at Turner Field.
Beltran showed some rust in the fourth inning when he took a bad route on Adam LaRoche's deep drive as it soared over his head for an RBI double. But Beltran believes these final three weeks are crucial as he looks to recover - physically and mentally - for 2010.
"This is helping a lot," Beltran said. "Because if I were to go home without coming back, it would have been something very difficult for me. I would have been feeling worried about the situation. But just getting back out there erased all of those negative thoughts. This is what I needed to do to get back to be what I was."
As for the Mets, they are but a shadow of the supposed contender that began this season. Last night, the Braves young phenom Tommy Hanson (10-3) struck out eight in seven scoreless innings and allowed only three hits as the Mets tumbled to their seventh loss in eight games.
Beltran remains very much a work in progress. Before last night's game, he sat in front of a laptop studying video of Hanson, looking for clues in his delivery. But inside his head, Beltran already knows the answer. It's just a matter of getting his body in sync.
"I'm still trying to find myself out there," Beltran said. "I might look pretty good at times, but I feel like I can be better, especially at the plate. Honestly, I feel like I'm a little bit lost. Right now, I'm a little bit jumpy, a little bit anxious. But that's normal after being out for so long."
When Beltran was placed on the DL on June 22, the Mets were 35-33 and in second place, only 1½ games behind the Phillies. But in his absence, they went 27-42 and were 16½ games out by the time he returned on Sept. 8.
Spared the daily grind of a 162-game season, Beltran actually feels much better than he normally would in September. The focus on the muscles surrounding his surgically repaired knees should help protect them for the future as well. That's what Beltran is hoping for, anyway.
"I don't feel like I've lost anything," Beltran said. "I feel like my quads now are stronger than ever because of all the work I did in rehab. When you're hurt and when you're playing - those are two different things. I feel very strong. But feeling strong and being able to do it out there is a different story."