At full power
Beltre is happy with his 1st half but wants more
As Red Sox third baseman Adrian Beltre sat quietly alone in front of his locker recently, signs of uncertainty riddled the visitor’s clubhouse at the Rogers Centre in Toronto.
There were crutches on the floor next to Dustin Pedroia’s locker. Designated hitter David Ortiz, who batted .143 in April, was preparing for a trip to the All-Star Game. Nameplates reading “Cash,’’ “Nava,’’ and “McDonald’’ hung where few expected they ever would.
For 88 games this season the Red Sox have managed to stay afloat despite all their moving parts, mostly the offshoot of injuries. And while there have been few mainstays on a roster fluid in names and productivity, Beltre has been a certainty.
After signing essentially a one-year contract last winter, Beltre has been everything the Sox could have hoped and more. His .330 batting average is sixth in the American League, and after a shaky start, he has regained the defensive form that makes him one of the best infielders in baseball. Now, he’s in Anaheim, Calif., for the first All-Star Game of his 13-year career.
“It’s consistency,’’ Pedroia said.
“He’s swung the bat great. He’s played good defense. He’s been a rock over there.’’
Choosing to turn down a three-year contract with Oakland meant losing out on a chance for ensured stability. Moving cross-country meant less time with his family in Los Angeles. Beltre this week is seeing his children for the first time in more than two months.
“This year, I was a little bit selfish when I decided to come East and have a good shot to do what I want, which is to win a World Series,’’ Beltre said. “My family understood. They stood behind my decision.’’
The decision came following Beltre’s final season of a disappointing stint in Seattle. He hit just eight home runs in 111 games in 2009 en route to the worst season of a five-year, $64 million contract he earned after hitting 48 home runs for the Dodgers in 2004.
Rather than take a more modest deal in a bleak market, Beltre and agent Scott Boras decided he would sign what probably will end up a one-year deal in Boston. With incentives, Beltre could make $10 million and have the option of reentering the market this winter. It was a chance to start over, and a chance for Beltre to once again prove his worth.
But for Beltre, it was also a chance to be part of a contender.
“It wasn’t difficult for me because it wasn’t a money thing,’’ he said. “I’ve earned enough money in this business. It was easier for me to make the decision because I’m financially set. I could be more focused on trying to put a ring on my finger.’’
Having begun his career with seven seasons in Los Angeles, Beltre says the demands of a big market were nothing new. The idea was never intimidating.
And when asked about the pressure of having one year to prove once again his value, he cut a reporter off before the question was finished.
“Every year,’’ he said. “Every year, every day. I put pressure on myself every second of my life. It’s a challenge you put on yourself.’’
Even in a T-shirt with enough slack to bunch around the shoulders, on Beltre the sleeves become taut as they move down his massive arms.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that Beltre can launch balls off one knee over Lansdowne Street, or that there is agreement among several Sox that Beltre has more power than anyone else in the lineup.
The surprise is the success he’s had in every other facet of his hitting. Sox management knew that moving from Safeco Field to hitter-friendly Fenway Park could mean 30 home runs for Beltre. They just didn’t know that he would be hitting .330 at the All-Star break.
The normally free-swinging Beltre has said that being surrounded with hitters like Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis has improved his patience. His average hasn’t dipped below .300 since April 25, and his .370 on-base percentage is 43 points higher than his career mark of .327.
Those numbers have Beltre on pace for his best offensive season since the career year in 2004. But to Beltre, that’s all it is — a pace. And it’s a pace he needs to maintain.
“It’s too early,’’ he said. “The season’s not three months. It’s six. Of course I’m happy that I’ve had a good start, but I’ve got to finish what I started.’’
Even when Beltre’s offense slumped in Seattle, his reputation as a defender endured. Despite a few errors early on as he learned the nuances of the Fenway infield, Beltre has shown every element of the fielding and throwing prowess the Sox expected.
Clay Buchholz is one of two other Sox joining Beltre in Anaheim as first-time All-Stars, and no one is the more appreciative of what Beltre has brought to the defense.
“It’s pretty unbelievable,’’ Buchholz said. “Coming into camp, you know what he was all about. He was going to hit and he was going to go out there and play third base better than anybody in the game. He’s exceeded the expectations that I had.
“He stands out on this team because there’s a lot of good players around him, and he’s still making those plays that as a pitcher, you don’t expect to be made. It’s a great feeling to look over there and know that you’ve got a guy like that that’s going to pick up everything that’s hit at him.’’
Most just assumed that a 48-homer season would have been enough to get anyone there. But when the ’04 National League roster was announced, Beltre, despite having 22 homers by the break, was left off in favor of Scott Rolen and Mike Lowell.
“Yeah, [I felt] a little bit [cheated],’’ Beltre said. “That’s just baseball. Other guys have good numbers, too.’’
The first call Beltre made when this year’s team was announced was to his wife, but it was with tempered excitement. Beltre says he enjoys the time off that the break usually brings. And while he acknowledges that he wanted to experience the All-Star Game at least once, he doesn’t see it as the biggest notch on his career belt.
“Not me,’’ Beltre said. “I’m not into that stuff. It’s a nice recognition, but it’s not a big deal for me.’’
If Beltre’s play continues into the second half, it will make him a valued commodity when the season ends. But he maintains that this year was not about All-Star appearances or playing his way into a big new contract.
“If it was about getting a new contract, I would’ve signed a three-year contract somewhere,’’ Beltre said. “It wasn’t about the money or the years. This was the best situation for me to have a chance to go all the way. And I took my chance.’’
Robert Mays can be reached at email@example.com.