Carlos Beltran, age 33, grimaces. He is taking live batting practice on Saturday morning on Field 7 in the Mets’ Spring Training complex, a day before he is scheduled to make his Grapefruit League debut. He has just fouled one of Scott Moviel’s first offerings off the inside of his lower right leg.
As a trainer scrambles to find a guard, Beltran walks outside of the protective cage and rolls his pant leg up to examine the damage. The bottom of the hard plastic brace on his knee becomes visible. He leans against the cage, head down.
Someone arrives to toss Beltran a shin guard, and as the outfielder adjusts it and straps it on, Moviel, 22, throws some warm-up pitches.
Moviel is massive, a sequoia tree. Listed at 6-11 and 235 pounds, he was drafted in the second round out of high school in 2007. He was considered among the team’s better prospects until losing half a season to knee surgery in 2009 and struggling with his command in 2010.
“Carlos, he has 15 pitches left,” says a coach from the shade of a pitching screen set up just behind the mound. Beltran nods and steps back in.
Beltran, too, was drafted in the second round out of high school, back in 1995. He is a veteran of 12 Major League seasons, a five-time All-Star, and the best centerfielder in Mets history. He missed large parts of the last two seasons with knee injuries and recently decided to move to a less taxing position in right field.
In the batting-practice session, he mostly tracks Moviel’s pitches, swinging sparingly. When he connects, he hits a couple line drives, a couple foul balls, and a couple grounders to the right side of the infield.
Moviel reaches his limit and jogs off to another field for conditioning. The screen is moved in front of the mound and a coach throws soft tosses to Beltran from 55 feet away.
Now Beltran smacks pitch after pitch. A strong wind blows in from left field, but Beltran’s bat defies the elements. Beyond the right-field fence — shaped to Citi Field’s spacious dimensions — fans with mitts hoot as they chase and catch Beltran’s bombs. It is all there: the short stride, the swift stroke, the easy power that helped Beltran hit 280 Major League home runs.
On another field about 50 yards away, Matt Harvey, 21, pitches against the Italian national baseball team. Harvey was drafted in the first round in 2010 out of college and given a $2.52 million bonus upon signing his first contract. He needs only 12 pitches to retire the side, striking out two. He throws just one inning. His arm must be protected; he will pitch his first professional games in 2011.
In the dugout, Valentino Pascucci, 32, awaits his chance. He was drafted out of college in the 15th round in 1999. He has spent ten seasons in the Minor Leagues and two in Japan. He has 138 Triple-A home runs to his credit, and 62 Major League at-bats. He will play first base for the latter innings of the exhibition against Italy, replacing Eric Campbell, 23. In two at-bats, Pascucci will strike out swinging and pop out to right field on a check swing.
Earlier in the morning, Jason Isringhausen, 38, threw a bullpen session to catcher Mike Nickeas, 28.
Isringhausen was drafted out of high school in the 44th round in 1991. He made his Major League debut with the Mets in 1995 before converting to a bullpen role with the A’s in 1999 and enjoying a nine-year run as a successful closer. He is a veteran of 915 1/3 Major League innings, two all-star games, four arm surgeries and two hip surgeries.
With each pitch, Isringhausen grunted, staccato bursts from the diaphragm. “Hunph! Hunph! Hunph!”
Nickeas, enthusiastic, oohed and ahhed at every one of Isringhausen’s trademark curveballs. All there-it-is and attaboy.
Nickeas was drafted in the fifth round in 2004. He has played seven seasons in the Minor Leagues and five games in the Majors. He will, in all likelihood, make his first Opening Day roster in 2011 because Ronny Paulino, 29, is suspended for performance-enhancing drug use.
On Thursday afternoon, Oliver Perez, 29, walked down a short hall toward the clubhouse exit wearing jeans, a golf shirt, and his salt-and-pepper hair cropped short.
Perez was signed as an amateur free agent out of Mexico in 1999. He has pitched nine seasons in the Majors; one of them excellent, one of them good, two of them effective, and five of them bad. As recently as 2008, his fastball averaged over 91 miles per hour. Now he can hardly crack 85.
He had just finished a day of activity that culminated in two moderately successful innings against the Cardinals. From the clubhouse kitchen, a woman’s voice called out.
“How do you feel, Ollie?”
“Good, good,” he said. “But I’m tired now.”