"To Jimmy Rollins: We are the team to beat."
It was unprompted, unscripted and completely unexpected. But with those nine words, Beltran instantly renewed his team's rivalry with the Phillies and assumed a new level of leadership with the Mets. The usually quiet and reserved center fielder, perhaps emboldened by his team's offseason acquisition of Johan Santana, stepped out of character -- and there's no reversing that now.
"Let me tell you this," Beltran said. "Without Santana, we felt, as a team, that we had a chance to win in our division. With him now, I have no doubt that we're going to win in our division. I have no doubt in that. We've got what it takes."
The statement was as much a product of his own confidence as it was a response to Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who last winter proclaimed that his team was the one to beat -- and then backed it up on the field.
Perhaps the greatest surprise was that Beltran, and not some other Met, made the statement. Normally quiet and unassuming off the field, Beltran has managed to mostly avoid the spotlight during his first three years in New York.
Now, that won't be so easy.
"It takes a special person to be able to do that," closer Billy Wagner said. "Now you have to lead. You have to stand there and take the punches in the bad games, and you have to be there to answer the questions and deal with it."
Beltran knows it, too. Minutes after making his comments -- in response to a question regarding his thoughts on Santana -- he acknowledged that he's now bound to become a popular enemy in Philadelphia.
"I don't care," Beltran said. "They boo me in Houston. One more city won't make a difference."
Rollins became a target in New York last season even before the Phillies and Mets first met -- and even before he made a critical fielding error during the home opener at Shea, which sent Mets fans into something of a frenzy. Then he spent the rest of the summer silencing those same fans, winning the National League Most Valuable Player Award while leading his Phillies to the NL East title.
Yet Rollins, unlike Beltran, was already a vocal leader of his team. The Mets went largely without a similar voice last season -- perhaps until now. And while Beltran's teammates may agree with his prediction, they're not about to state it so boldly.
"There's no use in us showing up if we don't believe that we are that type of team," Wagner said. "For me, I don't think I would ever go out and say it just because I believe in going out there on the field and doing it, but hey, you know what? He's my teammate. I got his back."
"We have inner confidence," third baseman David Wright said. "You're not going to find anyone in here who doesn't think we're going to win the National League East. But different guys have different motivations or ways to pump up their team."
Still, Wright disagreed in principle, saying that because they won last year, the Phillies remain the team to beat. Maybe the Mets have improved on paper, but they haven't yet proved it on the field. Not until September can they truly prove their point.
"I've said all along, I have the utmost confidence in this team to win," Wright said. "But just personally, I don't feel the need to declare anything. Talk is cheap when you're talking about February."
Manager Willie Randolph simply laughed at the comments, attributing them to Beltran's first child, four-month-old Ivana.
"I guess when you have a little baby girl," Randolph said, "it gives you confidence."
Now Beltran must be confident, whether he wants to or not. He directed his boldness at a player who's already plenty bold himself, and in doing so stamped a sizeable target on his back.
There's a chance he'll again fade into the background, just as there's a chance this new outspoken Beltran is here to stay. Either way, on Saturday, he ramped one of the NL's most impassioned rivalries to a new level of contention.
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.