On a bruised right knee, Carlos Beltran still made a giant leap forward last night, when he returned to the Mets' lineup after an 11-week absence and showed that he's not far away from regaining his All-Star form. Maybe just a few feet short.

Beltran went 1-for-4 with a double down the leftfield line in his first game since June 21. But one of the highlights was a long fly ball off Marlins reliever Brian Sanches that Cody Ross caught with his back against the rightfield wall in the seventh inning.

"I hit it on the good part of the bat, but it was high," Beltran said. "Unfortunately, I just got under that one."

The deep drive was Beltran's most solid contact of the night, and even if he was denied a dramatic grand slam, it was a moral victory for him in the Mets' 4-2 loss to Florida at Citi Field. He played all nine innings, made a nice sliding catch - on his recovering knee - of Jorge Cantu's sinking liner in the eighth and reported no problems afterward.

"Any time you make a catch, or get a hit, or do something for the team, you feel good and you gain confidence," Beltran said. "Honestly out there today, I felt like a kid in the playground. Bringing my daughter to the playground, when she's having fun, that's how I felt today. Hopefully, I can continue to come to the ballpark feeling comfortable out there."

But his comeback has little to do with this season. With less than a month remaining, there's not much left for Beltran to accomplish, other than to prove to himself - as well as the Mets - that he once again can be an MVP-caliber centerfielder as the team rebuilds for 2010.

"Going into spring training, to have as many questions answered now, then when I get there, it will be better," Jerry Manuel said. "And I think one of the questions would have been is he ready to play at the level that you're used to seeing him at. So this helps us answer some of those questions before spring training."

As for Beltran, he isn't looking that far ahead. Though no one would have faulted him for sitting out what amounts to garbage time for the Mets, he never wavered in his determination to play again this year.

Beltran, 32, gritted his way through rehab until the pain in his knee subsided, then reported to Port St. Lucie and followed up with five games for Class A Brooklyn, where he batted .167 (3-for-18) with two walks and two RBIs. When asked before last night's game why he bothered to return at all, Beltran had a simple response.

"Why not?" he said. "I don't feel obligated. This is my job. I'm doing what I have to do. I rehabbed myself, I made improvements, so that's why I'm here. This is my job."

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The four-time All-Star has two years and $37 million left on his $119-million contract, which makes him a sizable investment for the Mets, who despite the risk did not stand in his way. But the fact is that Beltran still has the bruise below his right knee, and though he is pain-free, the doctors have told him it will take the offseason to heal sufficiently. After last night's game, Beltran said the bruise is 50 percent smaller, but it's not "100 percent cured."

Beyond that, Beltran was not interested in talking about other treatments, such as the radical step of microfracture surgery.

Beltran whiffed on four pitches in his first at-bat and flied out in his second. But he opened the sixth inning with a double that dropped just inside the leftfield line and came within a few feet of being the hero in the seventh. In the big picture, however, the final score didn't matter.

"Thank God I made it and I'm here," Beltran said.