- Associated Press - Sunday, July 11, 2010

NEW YORK (AP) - Carlos Beltran is ready to return to the New York Mets. He’s just not sure what to expect right away.

Sidelined all season following right knee surgery, Beltran will be back in the lineup immediately after the All-Star break. He’ll play center field and bat cleanup Thursday night in San Francisco, manager Jerry Manuel said.

Beltran, who played 14 games on a rehab assignment with Class-A St. Lucie, returned to Citi Field on Sunday before New York’s 3-0 victory over the Atlanta Braves. The five-time All-Star said he’s pain-free and ready to go, but isn’t sure how rusty he’ll be at the plate.

“Who knows? I mean, the way I played in Port St. Lucie, I think I swung the bat well. But at the big league level it’s a different story,” Beltran said. “I do feel like I need to make adjustments. It will take me time. I don’t expect to come here and rake. I just expect to come here and like I say, do my part. Being able to contribute any way I can, and I believe in that.”

Asked if he was concerned that Beltran will have gone nearly a week without playing in a game when he returns to the lineup, Manuel said: “To some degree, yeah.”

“Sometimes when you give a guy a day off, one thing you feel is that, I know I’ll have him tomorrow,” Manuel said. “So that’s kind of how I feel. He’s come so far. He’s ready to go. He’s taking a little break from it. He probably won’t be at the level of everybody else, and that’ll take him some time, but he’s still a pretty good player.”

The Mets hope Beltran can help spark their slumping offense in the second half. New York is 48-40 and in second place in the NL East, four games behind Atlanta.

His return creates an intriguing issue for Manuel regarding playing time, because switch-hitter Angel Pagan has excelled as the everyday center fielder in Beltran’s absence.

Manuel said Pagan will start in right field Thursday night, putting Jeff Francoeur on the bench.

“The next night I’ll probably play Francoeur against the lefty,” Manuel said. “I think I’m going to try to split that time up. But if we face a series where we face four right-handers I’m going to still have to find time for Francoeur and find time to give Beltran a day off.”

After Manuel and Beltran met with reporters Sunday, the manager found Francoeur in the clubhouse and called him into another room for a chat.

Francoeur said after the game that he understands the situation and he’s well aware of what a healthy Beltran can do for the team.

“You’re not going to see me sulking. I’ll be ready to play,” Francoeur said.

Beltran, in the sixth season of a $119 million, seven-year contract, said it was important to him to show up at Citi Field and see his teammates before the All-Star break. He wanted to come off the disabled list in time for the Cincinnati series that started last Monday, but the organization decided to wait.

“I went through everything that I was asked to do in Port St. Lucie,” Beltran said. “Everything that I did I did it like as if I was playing for the New York Mets at the big league level. I didn’t feel like I was favoring my knee. I just went out there and played the game hard.

“I’m ready to go outside and play the game the way it’s supposed to be played. It doesn’t matter if I’m 80, 90, 100 percent. What is important is that what they asked me to do, I did everything and I’m good to go.”

The 33-year-old Beltran batted .367 (18 for 49) with no homers and five RBIs for St. Lucie. He had five doubles and scored five runs, spending time in center field and at designated hitter.

“I did really work hard in Port St. Lucie all this time being out,” Beltran said. “I feel like I’m in the best shape of my life. That’s the way I feel. Now I need to go outside, play the game, get acclimated. After being out for so long, it’s tough. But at the same time I really feel that all the sacrifice, all the effort that I put into the rehab, the rehab paid off.”

Beltran will work out in New York during the All-Star break. He said the brace he wears isn’t comfortable and it prevents him from bending his knee all the way, but it doesn’t hinder him when running.

“If it’s going to protect my knee, I have to get used to it,” he said.

Beltran was limited to 81 games last season because of a painful bone bruise. He had arthroscopic surgery Jan. 13 in Colorado to clean out the arthritic area of his right knee.

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