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Beltran named top AL player
05/03/2004 11:55 PM ET
TORONTO -- Carlos Beltran is notorious for starting a season ever so slowly.

Take last year. He batted .194 in April, along with just seven hits and two home runs. His career average for the first month of the season was .252.

So it was a real turnaround when Beltran ripped off a .312 average, tied for the league lead with eight home runs and had 19 RBIs this April.

Folks noticed. Beltran was voted the American League Pepsi Player of the Month by a media panel.

"He's doing things offensively the elite hitters do," general manager Allard Baird said. "He's taking strikes that are not his strikes. That tells you a lot about the way he has matured as a hitter."

In 2003, Beltran reported to Spring Training determined to avoid an awful April.

"His intent was to start off like Mike Sweeney," Baird said.

However, Beltran suffered a strained right oblique muscle during camp and missed the first 14 games of the season. When he returned, he had problems getting back into a groove.

This year, though, he was healthy and ready.

"He came in in the best shape of his life," Baird said.

Beltran's April also included a Major League-leading 23 runs, four doubles, a triple, 17 walks and seven stolen bases. He kick-started his season with a two-run, game-winning homer against the Chicago White Sox on Opening Day.

While Beltran was pleased with the honor, he was more concerned that the Royals were not winning games despite his hot month.

"We need to keep trying, keep working, keep going out there and playing the game as hard as we can," he said.

There's no doubt that Beltran is playing as hard as he can.

"The key word is maturity. ... He knows what works now," Baird said.

Beltran is undoubtedly headed toward his first All-Star Game selection. He's been the brightest element in the Royals' bleak season.

And there's hardly any chance that the Royals will be able to retain Beltran as he heads toward free agency next winter.

"That'd be the greatest gift I could give anybody," Baird said.

But, as he's said so often, Baird knows the Royals will not be able to afford Beltran. If the rest of his season is anything like April, Beltran will be able to name his price next winter.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.