Carlos Beltran's been a healthy surprise

NEW YORK -- Carlos Beltran didn't have the streak everyone was talking about heading into the New York Mets' weekend series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

That belonged to Dodgers right fielder Andre Ethier, who hit safely in 30 games until going 0-for-5 Saturday night, leaving Joe DiMaggio safe and sound for perhaps another year. But when Beltran wasn't in the Mets' starting lineup Sunday afternoon for the series finale, the most notable skein of the Mets season so far quietly ended. For the first time in 22 games, Beltran wasn't playing. The bigger upset? Beltran was a healthy scratch.

"It just seemed like the right time," Mets manager Terry Collins said.

Had Collins known the Mets would be 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position by the time he sent Beltran up to pinch hit as the possible tying run in the ninth inning of their 4-2 loss, he might not have given Beltran most of Sunday off, either. Beltran flied out to right field on a 2-1 count against Vicente Padilla -- "I got a fastball," Beltran said, "I just missed it" -- and when David Wright struck out to end the game, another Mets streak was snapped. They had won three straight before Sunday.

"You wish you could come back every game, but this happens," Beltran sighed.

Beltran is nobody's iron man just yet. But Sunday's news that the Mets placed Chris Young on the 15-day disabled list with an injured shoulder, and that they had moved another recuperating starter, ace Johan Santana, to the 60-day DL, were reminders that the Mets have gotten a charmed season from Beltran so far.

Bobby Parnell and Angel Pagan are on the DL, as well. Jason Bay began the season there and has hit only .241 with one home run in 14 games.

Yet through it all, Beltran has been there day in, day out for the Mets. The knee problems he fought in spring training and much of the previous two years haven't been a factor so far. His batting average (.295), home runs (five) and RBIs (18) all rank second best among the Mets' regulars. Four of Beltran's five homers have come at Citi Field -- no one's idea of a hitter's ballpark -- and he's hit four of them from the left side of the plate. This is yet another good sign, because it was Beltran's chronically troublesome right knee, his plant leg when he's hitting left-handed, that cost him significant chunks of time.

"It's been a good month," Beltran allowed. "I feel healthy. I feel good."

You could've gotten some long odds that Pagan -- who took over Beltran's center-field job when the 34-year-old Beltran volunteered to move to right during spring training -- would end up on the disabled list before Beltran did this year. Pagan, who just had a setback Friday trying to come back from a strained oblique muscle, is five years younger than Beltran.

Beltran's willingness to switch positions despite his Gold Glove past in center field pre-empted what would've been the prickliest decision Collins faced in his first month on the job, and -- let's face it -- every month thereafter if Beltran had stayed in center and then struggled. The yelping would've been second only to the noise that Derek Jeter's slow start caused.

But now? Beltran put a lot of work into his rehab, and things are going so well that the three other times the Mets have played one of these afternoon matinees after a night game, Beltran started every one. By the third time, Collins recalls with a smile, he didn't even make it all the way across the clubhouse to talk to Beltran about it.

Beltran just looked at him approaching and said, "I'm playing."

"Welllll, yeah -- I did that," Beltran said Sunday. Now he was laughing at the story, too. "I just said that because I feel happy that I'm healthy. Honestly, my main concern after I left spring training was to be able to play every day after I had the tendinitis in my left knee because I was compensating for my right knee. But early in the season, after Terry tried playing me three games, then giving me a day off, then playing me four games, then giving me a day off, that let me know where I was. And he's such a good motivator in the clubhouse, we want to go out and play hard for him -- me and everyone else in the lineup.

"The other thing is, I just feel like it's a better lineup when I'm in there."

Nobody has ever questioned that Beltran makes the Mets better, though the question of whether he's delivered enough during the seven-year, $119 million contract that's about to expire still starts a spirited debate among Mets fans. Some will tell you that Beltran in his prime here was one of the two or three best center fielders in the game, a guy who was so talented he made the game look easy. He'd lope into the gaps to run down fly balls, hit for average, hit for power, steal bases. He had stretches when Mets fans chanted "MVP!" when he came to the plate.

Of course, Beltran also struck out with his bat on his shoulder to end Game 7 of the 2006 National League Championship Series against St. Louis, and some fans will never forgive him for that. The Mets haven't come close to returning to the NLCS since. One September collapse followed another.

The Mets won't be in contention this year, either. But if or when Beltran does leave New York, his epitaph -- at minimum -- has to include this: Will Hit, When Healthy.

If Beltran keeps on hitting and playing every day like he has so far, he's going to get a lot of trade interest from other teams in the playoff hunt. Plenty of teams will take notice of those 21 straight games he just played.

Moments after Sunday's loss, Beltran already seemed eager to start another streak.

He knows this will surprise people, too:

"The more I've played," he said, "the better I've felt."