Lower half of Carlos Beltran's body crucial to the Cardinals' hopes this season

LOS ANGELES – The thick, black brace is hitched to Carlos Beltran's right knee, which is hitched to Carlos Beltran's game, which is hitched to what the St. Louis Cardinals can be in 2012.

The brace holds, the knee holds and then so do the Cardinals, who've come out of the World Series to lead the National League Central through mid-May in spite of a profound organizational shift or, some might suggest, because of it.

By the grace of Beltran's knee brace, along with a trip back to Rafael Furcal's prime, the Cardinals have carried an offense as potent as any in the league, even without you-know-who. Beltran, at 35, has been the Cardinals' most productive hitter. Furcal, at 34, has been their best player.

It is a fragile existence. Furcal hasn't played a full season since 2009, Beltran not since 2008. In part, it's why they're here. The other part is this: Furcal is batting .360 and has scored 28 runs, Beltran leads the league with 13 home runs and is second with 32 RBI.

When they are upright and sound, they are who their careers say they are.

That's left some room to work for a pitching staff that ranges from good (starting rotation) to wobbly (bullpen). And for the daily battle rookie manager Mike Matheny wages with the disabled list (Allen Craig and Jon Jay most recently). And for nights such as Friday here when Lance Berkman could use a few hours off his feet (also, to stay as far as possible from Los Angeles Dodgers starter Ted Lilly, against whom he has three hits in 31 career at-bats.)

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These are the normal intrigues of a baseball season, ones in which the Cardinals seem to handle with reasonable deftness. Berkman came back to life in St. Louis. So has Furcal. They fill the gaps between a solid-enough Matt Holliday and a rising David Freese, or they get out in front and pull the whole thing, depending on the moment.

Now, here is Beltran in his first year as a Cardinal, happy and in great shape, and feeling the same spirit of emotional rejuvenation, you know, as long as his lower body agrees to come along. He just missed four games resting his right knee, which became achy because he was nursing his right foot, which was stricken with plantar fasciitis.

These things seem to find Beltran, then rattle around inside him, taking body parts as they do. But, on the afternoon Craig was forced back to the disabled list, Beltran found himself at Dodger Stadium, discovering just enough life in that knee to bleed most of nine innings out of it later that night.

And while he drifted around in right field come game time, sneaking up on balls rather than charging through them, Beltran did deliver two more hits.

Between the afternoon test run and the evening game, he sat at his locker, his right pant leg rolled up, the black brace running mid-thigh to mid-shin. It must be so tiresome when every day is a slog to 7 o'clock, when 21 hours are devoted solely to the other three hours, only to awaken and push the boulder again to the hilltop.

"My knee was bothering me," he said, "I wanted to make sure everything was good."

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The Cardinals lost, 6-5, in spite of Berkman's pinch home run – just the second of his career – that tied the score in the ninth inning. And then Beltran returned to the clubhouse and to that knee, to the 21 hours that make the other three possible. The Cardinals have stumbled lately, losing six of their last eight games. Since they rolled into the season at 9-3, they've been only 13-14.

Still, taken end to end, the Cardinals have been plenty good enough to stay out in front of an otherwise soft division. Their run differential – plus-64 – is the best in the league. They haven't been all that close to healthy, either, so they wait on Chris Carpenter, and on Craig again, and now on Jay, and for Berkman – whose ninth-inning home run was his first of the season – to find his groove.

Every day they wait on Beltran, too, because of all that he can be for them. He is their pivotal player, like you-know-who was for more than a decade, and he's the reason they can be a relevant team again.

So, for the moment, he is not what he can be in the outfield, but closer to what he can be in the batter's box.

"I know he's going to be guarded a little bit, and that's the way we want him to be," Matheny said late Friday night. "We've told him, 'Do what you gotta do to stay in the lineup.' Right now, we want to make sure we keep him on the field."

Even after four games out and then one in for Beltran, Matheny couldn't be sure Beltran would be able to play Saturday night against the Dodgers.

"Show up tomorrow, take a role call and we'll see," Matheny said.

That's their fight, and his, and it's only just begun.

So, St. Louis, brace yourself.

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