Carlos Beltran, the man who occupied that third slot in the order for much of the first three months of the season, said on Sunday he has just one more hurdle to clear before playing in rehab games and returning to the Mets' lineup.
Beltran, who has been on the disabled list since June 22 with a bone bruise on his right knee, ran zigzags in the outfield and took fly balls Saturday. He was scheduled to work out in the pool Sunday before running outdoors again Monday.
The next step for Beltran is to run the bases. When he does that, he could be cleared for a Minor League rehab assignment before returning to the Majors.
"Every day is a challenge. Every day I go out and do something, I always look forward to do something different than I did the day before," Beltran said before Sunday's game with the Phillies. "And I'm always hoping that when I wake up in the morning, I don't wake up sore."
Beltran hasn't woken up sore in awhile, saying he hasn't felt pain in his knee in a few weeks. Still, with the Mets all but out of contention, the doctors want to be cautious with the injury. Beltran said the doctors want to take another MRI at the end of August to compare the size of the bruise to past MRIs and make sure he is progressing.
Beltran does want to get back in time to play rehab games. The Mets usually have players rehab in either St. Lucie, Fla., or Brooklyn, teams which end their seasons on Sept. 6.
"Honestly, with training, you can do all the running and catch fly balls, but when you play in games, that's different," Beltran said. "It doesn't matter how hard you train or how hard you rehab, games make the difference."
Speaking of differences, that's what Beltran can make for the Mets' offense. The center fielder was in the top three in the National League in hitting when he got hurt, batting .336 with eight home runs and 40 RBIs.
In the 56 games since Beltran's departure, the Mets have hit .258 as a team, with 29 home runs and 209 runs -- an average of 3.6 per game. In the 67 games before his injury, the team batted .277 with 43 home runs and 310 runs -- an average of 4.6 per contest.
The constant injuries to the Mets' regulars have forced manager Jerry Manuel to trot out a middle of the order like the one he did Sunday -- Daniel Murphy, Jeff Francoeur and Cory Sullivan. That trio has combined for 18 home runs this season. Jayson Werth, Ryan Howard and Raul Ibanez -- who constituted the Phillies' heart of the order on Sunday -- had 28, 32 and 27 home runs, respectively, entering the game.
The Mets' middle of the order has 106 RBIs. Howard has 99.
There has been talk of sitting Beltran the rest of the season, since the Mets are nine games under .500 and out of the playoff hunt. The center fielder, however, was adamant that he wants to play again in 2009.
"I'm a ballplayer. I want to get back," Beltran said. "It's no fun being able to sit down and not do anything. This is what I love to do, and that's why I'm rehabbing the way I am."
Tim Britton is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.