NEW YORK -- As Carlos Beltran rehabbed last summer following knee surgery, and as he worked through a case of tendinitis this spring, he would visualize being on the field and playing. Beltran would envision his regular healthy routine at the ballpark: hitting, fielding, slugging and winning.
"When things get tough in this game, that's the way you have to approach this game," he said. "You have to come to the ballpark every day and hope that that day, everything will change for good."
What Beltran did not visualize was two home runs hit well beyond Citi Field's stubborn dimensions, leading the Mets to an 8-4 victory Saturday over the Nationals.
"That," teammate Angel Pagan said, "is just the Carlos Beltran we all know."
It is also the Beltran that many have forgotten. Chronically injured and, at times, seemingly a shell of his former self, Beltran has not been completely healthy since 2008. He has not been consistently productive since '09. And that has prompted many to wonder if he might be the same again.
One game cannot quite erase those doubts. But one game can provide plenty of evidence that the Beltran of old has not completely disappeared.
"I think it's a huge step forward for him," Mets manager Terry Collins said. "This is a huge confidence-builder for this team."
Batting right-handed against Nationals lefty Tom Gorzelanny, Beltran gave the Mets a lead in the first inning Saturday, smoking a belt-high changeup for a two-run homer over the left-field wall. Three innings later, he parked another Gorzelanny changeup into the seats, tying the game at 3.
Of equal importance was the fly ball he hit in the sixth inning, traveling a similar arc before settling down in front of the warning track. There, Nationals left fielder Jerry Hairston Jr. raced under it and watched it bounce off his glove for a two-base error.
After Hairston's brother Scott struck out, Ike Davis boomed a two-run triple into the right-center-field gap to give the Mets their second lead.
"I just missed it, flat out," Hairston said of Beltran's fly. "I just put us behind the eight ball tonight. I really feel responsible for the loss."
Beltran, meanwhile, had reason to feel responsible for the win, even if he was hardly alone in producing it. Making his first start of the season, Chris Capuano settled down after allowing a three-run homer to Danny Espinosa in the second inning, relying mainly on his high-80s fastball to strike out eight. Bobby Parnell settled down after putting the first two batters on base in the eighth, striking out Rick Ankiel and Espinosa to bring Francisco Rodriguez to the mound for a four-out save. And Rodriguez settled down after walking the first two batters in the ninth, inducing a double play from Jayson Werth and whiffing Ryan Zimmerman to seal the win.
"Those first two hitters, I fell asleep with them," Rodriguez said. "And after I got myself into that jam, that's when I woke up again."
Perhaps. Or perhaps Rodriguez was still visualizing his first career at-bat, which came an inning earlier. (Against Doug Slaten, he fanned on five pitches.)
Rodriguez joked about it afterward, but he was still more interested in the save. And the Mets, in large part because of Beltran's long journey, were still more interested in the win.
Though Beltran showed flashes of his old self down the stretch last summer, he arrived at Spring Training lacking much of that juice. Upon arriving to camp, he was unable to run and thus unable to play. And shortly after Beltran did participate in his first game as a designated hitter, the Mets shelved him with tendinitis in his left knee. Next came the exercise program, the questions, the daily meetings with Collins and trainer Ray Ramirez. And the doubts.
"Sometimes the stars get a bad rap," Collins said. "Everybody says he doesn't want to be in Spring Training, he doesn't like Spring Training, or whatever it was. This guy, the only thing he did every single day was to try to get himself ready to play a baseball season. He knew Spring Training was a process, but it was not the most important thing."
Some doubts still linger of course -- even now, even for Collins. Despite Beltran's two home runs Saturday, Collins will stick to his plan to bench Beltran for Sunday's series finale, unwilling to risk further injury for a massively injury-prone player. "It's very hard" to do so, Collins admitted after the game, but both he and Beltran have bought into the plan.
"If he comes back tomorrow and he misses two weeks, I wouldn't live with myself very long," Collins said.
If that happened, Collins would most likely spend his mornings as he did this winter, visualizing his lineup with Beltran in the middle of it. He would visualize home runs, majestic shots, the type that leave the park with little doubt.
But even the most active, optimistic minds cannot envision everything.
As Beltran himself readily admitted, "I didn't visualize this today."