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All signs are positive for Beltre, Red Sox

Adrian Beltre has shaken off a rocky start and is now playing stellar defense. Adrian Beltre has shaken off a rocky start and is now playing stellar defense. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / June 1, 2010

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Adrian Beltre made a business decision when he signed with the Red Sox in January. Fenway Park was just another ballpark as far as he was concerned and there were no family or friends in the area. Some players on the roster were acquaintances but none were particularly close friends.

What the Red Sox offered beyond $10 million was a chance to wash the slate clean. After five unhappy seasons in Seattle, Beltre needed a place where he could reset his career.

The hope was to find a long-term deal with a team on the West Coast. But those offers did not come. Beltre had hit only .265 for the Mariners with eight home runs and 44 RBIs partly because of a shoulder injury that required surgery last June. Beltre was deemed not worth the risk, especially in a free agent market loaded with cheaper alternatives.

Agent Scott Boras sold Beltre on the idea of signing with the Red Sox for a year and then reentering the market under more favorable conditions.

The Red Sox were happy to serve as a halfway house.

“It made sense for us and it made sense for them,’’ assistant general manager Ben Cherington said. “We had kept in touch with Scott and told him what we could do. Eventually, that was what they wanted.’’

In the baseball operations office at Fenway, they compare such contracts to dating. It’s a trial period before deciding whether to make a long-term commitment.

After two months, love is in the air.

Beltre is hitting .335 and leads the Red Sox with 34 RBIs. His 20 extra-base hits are tied for third on the team and he has a .368 on-base percentage.

It’s beyond what the Red Sox expected. Beltre has rarely hit for a high average or shown much patience, arriving in Boston a career .270 hitter with a .325 on-base percentage.

The Sox needed some power and wanted a Gold Glove-caliber third baseman to upgrade their defense. What they have so far is a much more complete player.

“I had different options and I could have gone to other teams for more than one year. But I thought this place would be good for me,’’ Beltre said. “I wanted to have a chance to win the World Series and forget last year.’’

Beltre believes being in the Red Sox lineup has helped transform him as a hitter, if only temporarily.

“Maybe being around guys like [Kevin] Youkilis and [Dustin] Pedroia is rubbing off on me,’’ Beltre said. “Normally I’m a slow starter and I’m not a guy who hits for high average.

“I’d love to keep it like that. But it’s a sixth-month season and there are highs and lows. I’m probably not going to hit .340; I’m too aggressive to do that. But if I stay healthy, who knows?’’

The Red Sox can’t quite figure Beltre out. He is hitting .385 (25 of 65) when he’s behind in the count and only .291 (16 of 55) when ahead. Remarkably, he is hitting .348 on two-strike counts.

All that from a hitter who has walked only 10 times in 204 plate appearances and takes some the hardest swings in the game.

“When you watch him hit [with two strikes], it’s not like he really cuts his swing down a ton. When you talk to him, he talks about trying to see the ball longer, which certainly makes sense to me,’’ manager Terry Francona said.

“It’s confidence. You get into a streak where things are happening in your favor and you feel good about things and you’re not afraid to get deep in the count because you’ve had success putting the bat on the ball. He’s just gone through a really good run here.

“He’s a very aggressive hitter. He’s getting balls in the zone and he’s driving them. He’s getting balls out of the zone, and he’s getting hits. His bat is staying through the zone a long time.’’

There are other anomalies. Both the Sox and Boras felt that Fenway Park would be a far better fit for the righthanded-hitting Beltre than Seattle’s Safeco Field and its spacious left field. The hope was he would hit at least 30 home runs.

But Beltre has hit far better on the road (.375) than at home (.301) and has only five home runs total, two coming in the same game, against Tampa Bay last Wednesday.

“That’s why you just play. Then when it’s over you see where they’re at,’’ Francona said.

Beltre’s defense has been what everybody expected. After a few rocky games in April, he has produced a series of gems in recent weeks. His lateral movement, quick hands, and strong arm have impressed the Sox.

“I’ve never seen a third baseman cover as much ground,’’ shortstop Marco Scutaro said. “The ball will be going to the hole and Adrian cuts the ball off and makes an easier play. He’s one of the best in the game.’’

Said Beltre: “I made a lot of mistakes in the beginning. But I was able to learn from those and get better. I’m more prepared now. I know exactly how the field [at Fenway] is going to play now. I’m comfortable here.’’

Could that comfort lead to more than one season in Boston? Those decisions will wait until after the season. But Beltre said his wife, Sandra, and two children, Cassandra and Adrian Jr., have come to enjoy the city and he has mixed in well in a clubhouse that includes several prominent Latin players.

Beltre is only 31 and, as Cherington said, has some prime years still to play.

“I like it here,’’ Beltre said. “Who knows? Maybe this is the best place for me.’’

Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @peteabe.

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