Senior Baseball Columnist

Ageless Beltran, Furcal helping Cardinals forget about Albert


Carlos Beltran is utilizing his bat in the month of May with 10 home runs and 21 RBI. (Getty Images)  
Carlos Beltran is utilizing his bat in the month of May with 10 home runs and 21 RBI. (Getty Images)  

Hang around the batting cage, you see things. ...

Carlos Beltran, Rafael Furcal and the Cardinals' Fountain of Youth: While Josh Hamilton is hogging the attention, the Cardinals' Carlos Beltran is doing an awfully good impersonation of ... Josh Hamilton.

Beltran, 35, leads the majors with 21 RBI in the month of May and ranks second to Hamilton with 10 home runs. He leads the National League overall with 13 homers and ranks second to the Dodgers' Andre Ethier with 32 RBI and to the Dodgers' Matt Kemp with 28 runs.

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Until going 0 for 5 Monday night, Furcal, 34, led all NL leadoff hitters this month with a .383 batting average and 25 runs scored.

"It's really been an amazing start for those guys," Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak says. "It's been great to see.

"We thought Furcal would bounce back because he started last year in such a deep hole, he was trying to get three hits a night to make up for it. This year, he just hasn't stopped."

Furcal missed five weeks early last year with a fractured thumb and, at the end of May, having played in only 15 games, was hitting just .213. Now, he's at .370 with a .432 on-base percentage.

Beltran, who signed a two-year, $26 million deal over the winter, has been playing as if he's 25. He returned to All-Star form in 2011 (.300, 22 homers, 84 RBI) after two down seasons because of knee trouble. While lots of folks were down on him because the snapshot they looked at included the last three or four years combined, the Cardinals bet on what they saw in 2011.

"Last year he had 22 home runs and he's already got 13 now," Mozeliak says. "Obviously, that's a big discrepancy. His power is coming back, and I think he's comfortable in this lineup.

"You watch him day-in and day-out, he's one of those guys who appears to give little effort but he makes all the plays."

The key for the Cards will be to not lean too heavily on Beltran. When Lance Berkman and Allen Craig were out, there wasn't much choice. And now that they're back, center fielder Jon Jay has come up lame with a sore shoulder.

"We want to be smart and not overplay him," Mozeliak says of Beltran, and that will be one test as manager Mike Matheny steers this club into the summer months.

As of now, Beltran and Furcal have played a mammoth role in a Cardinals' lineup that currently leads the NL in home runs, RBI, slugging percentage, on-base percentage and batting average, and ranks second to the Braves in runs scored.

Albert Who?


Hang around the Midwest, you smell things. ...

The Cardinals, the division and comfortable pillows: Even after losing four in a row through Tuesday, the Cardinals have led the NL Central every single day so far this season. Yet. ...

"You've got to be careful with that," one scout cautions. "They've got that big record [20-15] against all NL Central teams. Houston, Pittsburgh, the Cubs ... that division is awful."

First part of that is true: The Cardinals so far have played 28 of 35 games within the division. They are 16-12 against the NL Central, 1-3 vs. the NL East and 3-0 vs. the NL West.

Second part of that is true, also. The NL Central, mostly, stinks.

But what's also true is, you play the games the schedule tells you to play. You still need wins, regardless. And the teams playing for a title in September are the clubs that have beaten the teams they were supposed to beat earlier in the season.


Hang around the ballpark, you hear things. ...

Giancarlo Stanton's sizzle: Yeah, yeah, yeah, the Marlins scooped up Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell last winter, dazzling new parts all. But getting Giancarlo Stanton, that's as good as a major trade.

Giancarlo Stanton seems so much more experienced than Mike Stanton ever was. He seems even closer to becoming one of the game's most dominant players.

His game-winning grand slam against the Mets on Sunday was a signature moment for the man who, in 13 games this month, is hitting .327 with four doubles, six homers, 13 RBI and a 1.147 OPS. His six homers in May trail only Hamilton (nine) and Beltran (eight) in the majors, and are tied with the White Sox's Adam Dunn.

"He's not a great player yet, but he's one of the most exciting," one veteran scout says. "He just crushes a ball. He hits line drives harder than anybody else in the game.

"Don't get me wrong, he can strike out on three pitches. I don't want to make him a superstar yet. But that grand slam? I knew it was out as soon as I heard it. And he hit a ball the other night over the shortstop's head, and I don't even think he saw it himself. Nobody hits a ball harder."


Hang around the cellar, you notice things. ...

Decision time for the Angels: There is no quick fix for this mess of a team. But one obvious remedy that they so far won't face is this: It's beyond time to bench Vernon Wells, and play kids Peter Bourjos and Mike Trout together every day in the outfield. This is a team desperately in need of an infusion of energy and athleticism, and they can get that in Bourjos and Trout together.

Manager Mike Scioscia stubbornly continues to play Wells far more often than not, clearly because the exorbitant amount of money owed the veteran ($21 million this year, $21 mil in 2013 and $21 mil in 2014). In return, the Angels so far are getting this from Wells, 33: .233 batting average, .258 on-base percentage, five homers and nine RBI in 33 games.

Meanwhile, in yet another non-Albert Pujols move that is backfiring, with the bases loaded and none out in the seventh inning of a 2-2 game in Texas on Saturday, Kendrys Morales pinch-hit for Erick Aybar. Morales did swat a sacrifice fly to give the Angels the lead, but that's not the point.

This is: The Angels earlier this year signed Aybar to a four-year, $35 million extension. And you can't trust him in a no-out situation to get a guy home from third? Aybar (.455) today is one of only two players in the majors with 125 or more at-bats with a lower OPS than Albert Pujols (.510). The other is the Twins' Alexi Ramirez (.497).

As for the Wells-Bourjos-Trout issue (Torii Hunter is locked in at right field), because they're stuck with Wells, the Angels last week were discussing Bourjos with the Nationals in a potential trade. They also discussed this with the Nats last winter, but some of the minor leaguers in those talks went to the Athletics in the Gio Gonzalez deal.

Nearly two months in, the Angels are still trying to figure out what kind of team they have. The power they planned on is non-existent. The aggressive, first-to-third base-running Scioscia loves isn't there. The Angels have been shut out eight times in their first 36 games, which equals the major-league high over the past 94 years.


Hang around the trainer's room, you feel things. ...

Opening in the NL West: One of the most important and yet little noticed transactions of the past week came when the Dodgers had to place Jerry Hairston Jr. on the disabled list with a hamstring strain.

Nobody missed the Dodgers doing the same with Matt Kemp late Monday night. And with Juan Uribe (wrist) also out, the Dodgers have arrived at a very crucial part of their season. Kemp, the runaway early leader for NL MVP, has scored or driven in a whopping 29 percent of the Dodgers' runs, as colleague Danny Knobler points out.

The Dodgers' six-game lead over the Giants (and 9½ over the Diamondbacks) into Tuesday's games is baseball's largest. San Francisco and Arizona must make a move right now, or it's going to be a very long summer.

Over the next two weeks, the Dodgers get the Cardinals, Astros and Brewers at home, and play the Padres and Diamondbacks on the road.

By the end of that stretch, we'll know a lot more about the status of Kemp's hamstring. And the NL West race.


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