ST. LOUIS — Whenever St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny works out before games, which is often, he uses the same weight room as his players at Busch Stadium. One player he sees regularly is Carlos Beltran who, at 36, is hitting more like he did at 26.
“Watch him in the weight room and you know it’s not just by chance,” Matheny says. “He’s doing a lot to stay in the shape he’s in.”
The Cardinals believe more down time has helped Beltran stay more consistent through the first half. At this point last season, he had missed only three games. This year, he already has sat out seven games and has come off the bench in three others.
Being another year removed from knee issues hasn’t hurt, either. After spending much of last season hitting cleanup behind Matt Holliday, Beltran also seems to be benefiting from hitting second, in the spot ahead of Holliday. And most players always are more comfortable in their second season after switching teams.
But ask Beltran how he’s turning back the clock and he shrugs. “I feel good, man, physically I feel good,” he says.
Really. It’s as simple as good health?
“I’m not coming to the ballpark thinking about this bothering me, or that bothering me,” he says. “When you come to the ballpark like that, it’s harder. You are thinking about what you can do to survive, to get through that day. That mentality is a grind. It takes away a lot from your game when you’re not healthy.”
His good health has produced robust numbers. Beltran went into Tuesday night’s game at Houston with 17 homers and a .305 batting average, both among the best in the National League. He also leads NL outfielders in fan balloting for the All-Star Game, which will be played in his old stomping grounds in Queens. A trip to the All-Star Game would be his eighth in 16 big-league seasons.
Beltran admits to making one change this season that has helped his game.
“Only thing is I’m a little more consistent with my strengthening program,” he says. “I’m making sure I do my legs three times a week, but other than that, everything is basically the same as last year.”
Perhaps Beltran is downplaying his success because he knows the season is not even half over. As well as he has played this year, he was even better to this point last year. After the Cardinals’ first 76 games in 2012, Beltran was hitting .312 with 20 homers and 59 RBI.
Then came July and August, when Beltran hit only .206 and his overall average dropped to .266. He bounced back some in September to finish the regular season at .269 with 32 homers.
“I understand there’s going to be a month where you probably don’t do well. This game is about ups and downs,” he says. “For these first three months, I feel like I’ve been doing my job consistently. I’m doing my part. I like that.”
If Beltran’s ups continue to outweigh the downs in the second half, he will be in position to land another multi-year deal. But with Matt Adams looking ready and top prospect Oscar Taveras on the way, the Cardinals aren’t likely to offer Beltran another $26 million, two-year contract. They figure to go no more than one year, and that would be expected to come in the way of a qualifying offer (which would secure the Cardinals a first-round draft pick if he signed with another team).
While Beltran says he would like to stay with the Cardinals, he hasn’t been approached by general manager John Mozeliak and he’s been around St. Louis long enough to size up the situation. Beltran won’t say how much longer he hopes to play in the majors, but the way he’s going, it’s safe to assume he has at least a couple of more years in him.
“He’s at an age where you anticipate plateauing off,” Matheny says. “But he just seems to keep getting better. It’s been incredible.”
Says Beltran: “I don’t want to say how many more years I want to play, because who knows? Anything can change. But right now, I’m happy. And I’m happy things are going well.”
No matter what the reason. You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.