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Beltre relishes opportunity to play for Spain

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Engel Beltre isn't from Spain, and he knows he's missing out on a chance to snag some potentially valuable playing time back at the Rangers' camp. But he still believes the World Baseball Classic was important enough for him to leave Arizona and join Team Spain.

Beltre, who joined Spain late Tuesday and batted leadoff in Wednesday's 19-7 loss to the Orioles, would have been in line for more at-bats and more opportunities in the outfield with Rangers right fielder Nelson Cruz joining the Dominican Republic's Classic squad. Yet Beltre has been looking forward to the chance to represent Spain, where his father was born.

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"They gave me a chance, and I want to be in the World Baseball Classic and compete with the other countries. This is a good team," Beltre said Wednesday, when he went 1-for-5 with a triple and two runs scored. "If I stayed there, I could've played more. But I wanted to play here and compete against the other countries and challenge them. That's one of the things I've wanted to do."

As he does once a year, Beltre's father will fly in Wednesday night to watch his son play. This time, however, it won't be in a Minor League stadium out in Frisco, Texas, where Beltre has spent the last 2 1/2 years playing for Texas' Double-A affiliate. It will be in a packed Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where Spain will be facing some of the best international teams in the world: hometown Puerto Rico, Beltre's native Dominican Republic and star-studded Venezuela.

But people counted out Spain the last time they took the field, too. Israel was the heavy favorite in September's Classic qualifying round in Jupiter, Fla. Team Israel even beat Spain in their first matchup. But Spain won the final game, 9-7, and advanced to the Classic for the first time. That's enough reason for Beltre to believe that Spain can do it again in Pool C play.

"That's a very hard division for us, but we've got good players here. I think if we put it together, we might have a chance to pass to that next level," Beltre said. "That's the thing. The people say our team wasn't going to win, and we just put it together, played hard and you saw what happened. We won the qualifier."

Beltre was a big part of Spain's run to the Classic, batting .375 with a triple, three RBIs, four runs scored and three stolen bases in four games. That came after an encouraging year with Double-A Frisco, where he posted a .261/.307/.420 batting line while setting career highs in triples (17), home runs (13) and stolen bases (36).

Beltre attributed that offensive improvement to a more selective approach at the plate, something he feels he's carried through winter ball in the Dominican League and into Spring Training and the Classic.

The 23-year-old center fielder showed off his ability Wednesday, leading off the third inning with a line drive to center field that Baltimore's L.J. Hoes couldn't reel in. The play was ruled an error on Hoes, but Beltre turned it into a three-base mistake, wheeling all the way around to third and scoring on Paco Figueroa's groundout. He later tripled off Orioles closer Jim Johnson.

"Beltre is a good addition to our squad, and we knew that since the beginning," Team Spain manager Mauro Mazzotti said. "That's why we fought a lot to get him. He's welcome back."

Where Beltre lands when he returns to the Rangers remains to be seen. He was sidelined by a strained shoulder muscle earlier this spring, but he's hopeful that he can make some noise in the competition for Texas' starting center-field opening. He is more likely headed for Triple-A Round Rock to begin the year, but he hopes that at least puts him in line for a big league callup if the opportunity presents itself.

"Right now, I'm competing for the center field [job] with the Rangers. But if they think they might send me to Triple-A to start and see what's going to happen, that's that," Beltre said. "Some people go down and some people go up. That's baseball."

Adam Berry is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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