<
>

Carlos Beltran has been a second-half marvel

NEW YORK -- Carlos Beltran began his Thursday night at Yankee Stadium by being honored as the American League's Player of the Month for August. He finished it by being interviewed as the New York Yankees' player of the night in their 3-2 victory over the Chicago White Sox in the first game of a four-game series.

As unlikely as it may seem, Beltran, who is nearly halfway through his 39th year -- he turned 38 in April -- is the most dangerous hitter in the Yankees' lineup now that Mark Teixeira is done for the season and Alex Rodriguez appears to have drastically cooled off. Beltran's three-run home run off White Sox starter Chris Sale -- a pitcher the Yankees had scored a total of three runs off in nine previous appearances comprising 40 innings -- provided the margin of victory. In fact, it was the only big hit the Yankees could manage all night.

That it would come off the bat of Beltran would have seemed unthinkable back in April, when he was struggling through a horrific start in which he batted just .162, without a home run and with a mere seven RBIs and an anemic OPS of .481. And it would have been just as unthinkable to predict that as the season wore on, Beltran would only get better and better, and stronger and stronger.

At the point of a baseball season when even young bucks are wearing down, Beltran continues to heat up. His August was exceptional -- he batted .353 with five home runs and 15 RBIs and had a 1.067 OPS -- and while his batting average has dipped somewhat in September (.265), he already has matched his August total for home runs and runs batted in.

For the Yankees, who have seen Teixeira break down and A-Rod wear down over the second half of the season, Beltran's resurgence could not have come at a better time. And Beltran's exceptional record in postseason play gives at least one reason to think that the Yankees, who still trail Toronto by three games in the American League East and have a slim chance of overturning that with just 10 games to play, may have more than a one-game playoff run in them.

"Carlos has had some really big three-run homers for us in the second half," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "He was struggling a lot in the beginning, but I knew it was a long year and that we would really need him."

Beltran, who can't run much anymore and admittedly can look lackadaisical in the outfield at times, was at a loss to explain the late-season life in his bat, expect to lean on what all hitters do during a hot streak: Self-confidence.

"Right now I feel like I have a chance at the plate," he said. "I feel like I'm seeing the ball well. I feel like I’m simplifying things and recognizing pitches. My foundation feels solid right now."

Beltran thought the turnaround might go back to a long conversation he had with hitting coach Jeff Pentland when the team was in Cleveland in early August, and he doesn't discount the fact that after offseason cleanout surgery, the right elbow that troubled him all of last year finally is pain-free. He and Pentland also made a slight adjustment in his stance -- simply put, it involved putting more of his weight on his back leg -- that he admitted felt awkward and uncomfortable at first, but became a lot more tolerable once he saw the results.

In fact, if you take April out of the equation, Beltran has batted .295 with 18 home runs, 56 RBIs and an .862 OPS in the five months since. The Yankees certainly would have signed up for those numbers in a heartbeat before the season began.

"I wasn't worried because players go through months where you don’t hit well," Beltran said. "April is the beginning of the hype and the focus isn’t so much on the team, it's on the players. It’s an important month of the year but for me it wasn't a good one, and I cannot let one month dictate the next one. So I've got to forget about it, turn the page and go get it the next month."

Against Sale, a pitcher he barely remembered facing -- he had three plate appearances against him last season and went 0-for-2 with a walk -- Beltran had three excellent at-bats Thursday night, lining a single in the first inning and flying out to the warning track in center in the sixth.

But it was his at-bat in the third inning, in which he turned on a 2-2 fastball clocked at 98 mph and rocketed it on a low line into the left-field seats that won the game for the Yankees. They had to survive some anxious moments -- starter and winner Michael Pineda gave up a long home run to Trayce Thompson in the sixth, Dellin Betances walked in a run in the seventh and Andrew Miller had a runner on and the powerful Jose Abreu at the plate in the ninth -- but they made Beltran's 18th homer of the season stand up, keeping alive their flickering, if unlikely, hopes of winning the division.

"It was a tough series over there, no doubt about it, especially against a team that’s in first place," Beltran said, referring to the just-completed trip to Toronto, where the Yankees dropped two of three games in the last head-to-head matchup of the teams. "It would have been great to win yesterday’s ballgame. But it is what it is. Today we weren't thinking about Toronto, we were thinking about the White Sox and Sale. Right now, [Toronto is] got 10 games left and we've got 10 games left. Let's go out there, play our best baseball and see what happens."

With Beltran swinging the way he has been for the past five months, it gives them a chance, and that's really all the Yankees can ask.