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Mariners expect more from Beltre

Mariners expecting more from Beltre in 2007

PEORIA, Ariz. -- If he sat down and really thought about it, Adrian Beltre might be able to come up with a reasonable explanation of why it took him so long to find his offensive groove with the Mariners.

Then again, the Mariners' third baseman has tried the cerebral approach before. It did nothing but clutter his mind, frustrate him to no end and, ultimately, account for many of his struggles in the first year and a half after he signed that whopping five-year, $64 million contract before the 2005 season.

"I was trying to do too much, trying to work too much on mechanical stuff, do too many things at the plate," Beltre said. "You get frustrated. You know you can do better. It gets to be too much. Finally, I got to the point where you say, 'whatever.' In the second half, I just let it go."

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Letting go never felt quite so good, as Beltre showed flashes of the stroke that propelled him to one of the greatest seasons ever by a third baseman in 2004. That year -- as a Los Angeles Dodger -- he hit .334 with 48 home runs and drove in 121 runs.

"He was the guy we counted on that year," said Seattle pitcher Jeff Weaver, who played with Beltre in Los Angeles. "He was the toughest out I've seen in a while. If there was a runner in scoring position [with Beltre at bat], we counted on it coming in. For a season, that was pretty impressive. You haven't seen too many better than that."

The Mariners certainly hope that Beltre, who is entering his third season in Seattle, can replicate the production he had with the Dodgers in 2004 or, at the very least, the kind of success he had at the plate in the second half of last season, when he hit 31 points higher (.283) than the first half with 18 of his 25 home runs and 54 of his 89 RBIs coming after the All-Star break.

There are enough indications that something went dramatically better for Beltre in the second half of the season. What's not so easy to figure out is what caused such a giant change for a guy who on April 30 was lugging around a .189 batting average.

"Specifically, I can't really remember what we did," Mariners hitting coach Jeff Pentland said when asked if he had made any major mechanical changes in Beltre's swing.

What is certain is Beltre has raised the bar of expectations for the 2007 season. His team needs his run-producing bat, and not just after the All-Star break. No, that won't cut it for a team that was shut out 15 times last season, the most in the Major Leagues.

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"I know what we expect, and the expectation is we'll see the Adrian Beltre that shows up this year is the one that finished the last half of the season," said Mariners manager Mike Hargrove. "That's the one we need. That's the expectation."

It's not like this will be the first time that lofty expectations have been placed squarely on the shoulders of the 27-year-old Beltre, who first broke into the Major Leagues as a 19-year-old with the Dodgers in 1998.

The Mariners handed him the largest contract in club history in December 2004 after a season in which he finished second to Barry Bonds in the race for National League Most Valuable Player.

But Beltre couldn't replicate his success in Los Angeles, as he hit just .255 with 19 home runs -- his fewest since the 2001 -- and 87 RBIs. Many speculated Beltre was pressing too hard to justify his contract or was simply slow to adjust onto American League pitchers.

"I think that's an excuse, even though sometimes it's difficult for you because there's a lot of pitchers you haven't seen," Beltre said. "When you're going good, it doesn't matter who is pitching. I can't use that as an excuse."

Beltre certainly didn't need any excuses for his second-half performance. It actually started much earlier than that, when Hargrove moved Beltre's slumping bat from sixth to second in the batting order behind Ichiro Suzuki on May 30.

The move was made hoping Beltre would get to look at a different set of pitches. It was also made so that he would cut down on his prodigious swing, which often caught more air than ball.

It worked.

Beltre hit .324 in June, his highest monthly average for the season, with five home runs. He would hit seven more home runs in August and nine in 25 games in September. For the first time since coming to Seattle, he was using the whole field and driving the ball the opposite way consistently. Better still, he was laying off pitches away, the ones that he often chased haphazardly.

"Maybe I cut my swing a little better, maybe it helped to have Raul [Ibanez] behind me," he said. "I can't put a finger on why it happened. You get so frustrated to the point that you know you can do better. You try so many things that at the time don't work, put my hands here or put my feet there."

Pentland said a few minor adjustments helped Beltre, as did the ability to clear his ahead and keep things simple. As far as he sees it, the second half was just the starting point for what Beltre is capable of. He might not ever approach those gaudy statistics he compiled in 2004, but there's no reason to think he can't hit 30 home runs and drive in 100 runs.

"Instead of swinging harder, we pulled him back and concentrated more on squaring the ball up and hitting it solid," Pentland said. "We wanted to get some of the lift out of his swing and create a little more balance with his body. Now the key is we want to build on what we did in the second half."

The groundwork for a big season, Pentland said, starts here in Peoria in Spring Training.

"I told him Spring Training is a big time for him," Pentland said. "It sets the tone for what you're going to do during the season."

Corey Brock is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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