PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- New York Mets outfielder Carlos Beltran isn't ruling out the possibility of joining the team in Puerto Rico for a three-game set with the Marlins next week after what he called a successful step in his return from injury.
Beltran went 0-for-2 with a walk and played five innings in center field with no apparent problems Thursday during his first rehab assignment game with the Class A-Advanced St. Lucie Mets.
Though there is no exact time frame for his return other than the 20 day maximum he has for the rehab assignment, Beltran is finally nearing a return to New York more than five months after Jan. 13 arthroscopic surgery on his arthritic right knee.
"I would love to [make the trip to San Juan] because being able to play in front of my fans and my people, that's not an experience that comes every single year. But at the same time, more important than that, I just want to be back for the season healthy for the long run," Beltran said. "If it happens great. If it doesn't, I will continue to work hard with the team to be able to play for the rest of the season."
Beltran saw just eight pitches in three plate appearances from the right side, and wasn't tested in center field. But he jogged on and off the field without a limp, and sprinted out of the box on a groundout to to the pitcher in the third inning.
The five-time All-Star reached first on a walk in the fifth inning and advanced to second when the next batter also reached base on balls, but didn't get a chance to run the bases.
"Everything came out good," Beltran said. "I feel better than what I was expecting, honestly. I am very happy with the outcome. ... Coming out of the blocks a couple times on a couple grounders I hit, I feel great. I went through the bag one time really hard, and I feel great. I'm just looking forward to tomorrow."
Beltran said he will play a full game as a designated hitter Friday and will play seven innings in the field Saturday. He estimated he needs five or six games to better determine when he will be ready to return to New York, but he hopes to be back with the team sooner than 20 days.
It has been a long journey just to reach this point.
Following a June 21, 2009, game against Tampa Bay, Beltran was shut down last season until September to rest a bone bruise in the right knee. He underwent surgery late in the offseason, but originally was expected to be playing with the Mets by May.
Progress was slow, and in late April he returned to the Vail, Colo., doctor who performed the surgery to be fitted for a custom brace because the bone bruise continued to trouble him. Beltran finally began playing in extended spring training games last month.
"It really has been a long process, frustrating, too, because as a player you want to go out and play and do things, but I wasn't quite ready yet," Beltran said. "The last two weeks, I really have made a lot of improvement in running in the outfield, running the bases, and it was time for me to make the transition from practicing to a real game and that's what I'm here for. I'm excited."
Beltran said he is under no restrictions during the rehab assignment, but he wasn't surprised to find he was a little rusty at the plate. He achieved his goal of putting the ball in play and expects the rest of his game to come around with more game experience.
"After all this work that I've been able to put in the rehab, day-in, day-out, coming to the ballpark every single day, spending like 3 ½ hours doing a lot of work, I feel like I'm in shape physically, but being out there playing for a game, you can never prepare for that," Beltran said. "That's something that will come with time."
Beltran can spend a maximum of 20 days on his rehab assignment, which would put him back with the Mets at the latest by July 15 -- the first day after the All-Star Break.
In Beltran's absence, the Mets have been getting solid production from Angel Pagan, who was out of Thursday's lineup against the Tigers with a muscle spasm in his back. Pagan is batting .302 with four home runs and 14 stolen bases through 255 at-bats, and although Beltran said he has been impressed, he is ready to compete for his old job.
"I think nobody expected Angel to do what he's doing, but I knew the potential that that guy has is unbelievable," Beltran said. "He got the opportunity to play every day. He showed everybody that he's a great ballplayer. But this is a business. I'm here rehabbing myself also trying to get back, so he's a great guy, I wish him all the best, but at the same time, I'm a competitor and I want to play also. I will leave that part to the front office and the managers to decide what they want to do."
Beltran is using speculation the Mets are better off with Pagan in center field as motivation to show he is still the same player who batted .325 last year in 81 games while playing injured through much of that time.
"You really want to prove to yourself and people that doubt you can play the game," Beltran said. "I have heard a lot about people saying I can come back and other people saying I'm not going to be able to come back. Instead of letting that get me down, I'm going to come here and work hard. I am just doing this for myself personally and for my teammates that want me to be back with the team."
The Mets management appears to favor Beltran's return to center field, as manager Jerry Manuel has said Beltran's activation from the disabled list will push Pagan to a corner spot.
Manuel has remained optimistic about Beltran's return since he began playing extended spring training games, even suggesting at one point he possibly could serve as a designated hitter in June interleague play.
"That really motivates me to, every day, take this rehab serious and get back to the team because I know if I am healthy, I have a lot to contribute to the team offensively and defensively," Beltran said of Manuel's support. "I have no doubt in that.
"Now that I am close to getting back to the big leagues, I am just looking forward to taking this rehab assignment and facing these pitchers and playing the game hard and doing what I need to do here for me to be able to carry that to the big leagues.
"I have to give credit to all those guys," Beltran said. "They really have been able to come through as a team. They're staying together. A lot of guys are playing good. They were struggling, but they've been able to battle and that shows character of a team. That shows the players that we have. I just want to be part of that."
Laurel Pfahler is a contributor to ESPNNewYork.com.