Tuesday, August 29, 2006

From mocking to MVP

Hal Bock at Mets.com writes about Carlos Beltran and the comeback he has made:

Signed by the New York Mets as the top free agent in the winter of 2005, Beltran was viewed as the centerpiece in the club's reconstruction. He arrived with impeccable credentials, including a monster postseason for the Houston Astros in which he set records by scoring 21 runs after hitting home runs in five consecutive games.

He's been that kind of player this season, leading the Mets in home runs and RBIs while New York charged to a double-digit lead in the National League East. But last season, he was distinctly underwhelming.

Beltran struggled all season. He batted .266 with just 16 home runs and 78 RBIs. This after hitting 36 homers and driving in 104 for Kansas City and Houston the year before. In 2004, he stole 42 bases. Last season, he had 17 steals. He is not about to make excuses, but it is a fact that he played hurt for two months with a quad injury.

Last winter, he had a batting cage installed at his home in Puerto Rico. Every day, he took 400 swings -- 200 right-handed and 200 left-handed. Friends took turns throwing to him, even his old Little League coach.

"This is what I do for a living," Beltran said. "Every afternoon, about 4 p.m., my wife would remind me it's time to go to the cage. I feel if you hit a lot, it helps you. When you run, you create endurance. Hitting is the same way."

The regimen paid dividends. He regained his long ball swing, reaching 38 home runs and 108 RBIs with a little more than a month left in the regular season. In July, he became the first Met and the ninth Major League player to hit three grand slams in one calendar month. He is the only Major Leaguer to hit a slam from the left side in one game and from the right side in the next.

It's a good thing. These days, Beltran is viewed as a better left-handed hitter than right-handed, and the majority of his home runs have come from that side of the plate.

And while all the swings and hard work over the winter paid off to make him the National League's All-Star center fielder and a leading candidate for Comeback Player of the Year, he's also become a strong entry for the Most Valuable Player Award.

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