Baseball

April 23, 2006

Carlos Factor
The bond between Beltran and Delgado has brought out the best in each playerand powered the Mets' smashing start

Already sharing afirst name, a homeland, an unassigned locker between their designated ones andinitial hesitation about becoming a Met, Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado tooktheir act on the road last week for a series against the Nationals. Each daythe teammates shared a taxi from their hotel in Washington to RFK Stadium, andon their one free evening they shared a table for dinner. The bills they split."I got the taxis," Delgado said last Friday. "He picked up thedinner. He makes more than me."

Beltran is in thesecond season of a seven-year, $119 million contract that he signed in January2005 after first offering himself to the Yankees at a discount of about 20%.Delgado, acquired last winter in a trade, is owed $48 million through 2008, theremainder of a four-year deal he signed with the Marlins in January '05 afterturning down a better offer from the Mets. Both preferred teams they felt had abetter chance of winning immediately but are warming up to their new home.

Together the twonatives of Puerto Rico pounded the Nationals for 11 hits, including threehomers, and seven RBIs as New York swept three games. By taking two of threefrom Milwaukee at home over the weekend (Delgado had a homer and five RBIs inthe series, while Beltran was slowed by a tight right hamstring and missedSunday's game), the Mets rolled to the best record in the majors, 9-2, which isalso the best start in franchise history. At the heart of that early run and ofNew York's batting order are Beltran and Delgado, the three-four hitters whowere batting a combined .321 and bringing out the best in each other.

"[Delgado] issomeone who is always there for me, someone I talk to all the time, and I don'tmean just about baseball," says Beltran, a career .281 hitter who hit asoft .266 last season and often drew jeers from the Shea Stadium crowds."In the lineup I know if I don't get the job done, if I don't get thatrunner in from third base, he will. That's a great feeling."

Delgado downplayshis influence on Beltran, preferring to look at the big picture. "We'relike brothers," he says of his new teammates, "and all of us here helpeach other."

That's a bigreason the Mets have played cohesively from the start of the season even thoughthey have a new closer (Billy Wagner replaced Braden Looper) and have turnedover half their every-day positions: first base (Delgado replaced DougMientkiewicz), second base (Anderson Hernandez replaced Kaz Matsui), rightfield(Xavier Nady replaced Mike Cameron) and catcher (Paul Lo Duca replaced MikePiazza). "It works because we are all equals," explains Beltran."Nobody thinks they are any bigger than anybody else."

Delgado, though,plays a major role on the club because of his power--he has hit 30 or more homeruns for nine years running--and his professionalism. He provides a calminginfluence that, in particular, makes life in the big city easier for Beltran.Says righthander Pedro Martinez, "It's amazing that someone that big andstrong is so gentle and soft-spoken. Everybody respects him."

More importantthan his personality, Delgado helps give New York one of the league's deepestlineups. After ranking 11th in the NL last year in batting average, at .258,the Mets were second at week's end with a .298 mark. "As a pitcher on thisteam," says ace Tom Glavine, who was 2-0 with a 1.50 ERA after beatingMilwaukee 4-3 last Friday, "you feel like you have a two- or three-runcushion before the game starts."

The Mets haven'tfinished higher than third since 2000, when they won the wild card and reachedthe World Series (losing to the Yankees), and they haven't taken a divisiontitle in a franchise-worst drought of 17 years. Particularly vexing, they havenot won a season series from division-rival Atlanta since 1997, losing almosttwo thirds of their head-to-head matchups (49-83) in that span. Beginning April17, New York was scheduled to play nine of its next 20 games against theBraves, which should better define just how new and improved these Metsare.

JIM THOME'S BIGBAT
A Blast In Chicago

On a recentafternoon at Citizens Bank Park, Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard looked upat a TV hanging from the clubhouse ceiling. What he saw was an image thatalready is a familiar one this season: Jim Thome rounding the bases in a WhiteSox uniform. "Another home run for Jim," said the 26-year-old Howard,whose emergence last season as the NL Rookie of the Year made Thome--dealt toChicago in November--expendable. "A lot of us here are watching and rootingfor him."

ManyPhiladelphians are keeping tabs on Thome for a different reason: to see how thePhillies' decision to trade the four-time All-Star and give his job to Howardplays out. Two weeks into the season Thome was hitting .342 with seven homeruns and 12 RBIs; despite a .317 average, Howard had not found his power stroke(two dingers, two RBIs). As Chicago's DH, Thome suddenly resembles the fearsomeslugger who had nine straight 30-home-run seasons before missing 103 games in'05 (back and elbow injuries), when he hit just .207 with seven homers.

"He looks veryhealthy and strong to me," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said last week asThome homered in three straight against Detroit. "Not having to go out ondefense will be a big help for him during the year."

Typically a slowstarter, Thome reversed that trend by playing in minor league games (where hecould bat once an inning) when the White Sox went on the road late in springtraining. "Those at bats really did it," says Thome. "Finding myrhythm and getting in the flow helped." --Albert Chen

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Who's YourDaddy?
Mets fans may think the Braves own their team, but from the start of the 1998season through '05 seven other clubs have had even less success against adivision opponent. (Source: Elias Sports Bureau)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)