By Rich Coutinho
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I have spent the better part of  5 years defending Carlos Beltran.

I believe he is the most misunderstood and under-appreciated athlete in all of New York. Sure, he came here with a huge contract and with it came huge expectations, but I firmly believe his true value will not be measured until he leaves the Mets.

When he arrived, it was on the heels of a historic playoff performance in which he nearly single-handedly carried the Astros to the promised land. In 2006, he was on a team that made baseball’s Final Four — and don’t let anyone tell you he was not a big reason why. Yet, all the focus is on that Adam Wainwright curve ball in Game 7 of the NLCS. I will say this now like I did then: Nobody, and I mean nobody, was hitting that pitch. He did the right thing. Beltran’s best chance was hoping the umpire would be as mesmerized by the pitch as we all were.

Truth be told, Beltran had a good NLCS, smacking two homers, including the winning shot in Game 1. But people just do not give him any credit. I’ve been perplexed by this Beltran bashing for a long time and I still don’t get it.

In fact, I have gotten to know Beltran. The biggest thing I found out is that this guy just loves to play baseball. Missing as much time as he has due to injury hurt him deeply. Last season, he was obviously not 100% and that motivated him to work harder and harder this offseason.

After he arrived in spring training, there were a few setbacks and the Beltran bashing started again — questioning his heart and character, and critics said he’d have no chance to make the Opening Day lineup. But I saw him working out on the back fields harder than I have ever seen a player work. He desperately wanted to play. And he handled his migration to right field with about as much class as I have ever seen a superstar handle such a move.

There is a certain shortstop across town who might be going through the same thing next season. It will be interesting to see if he handles it with the grace that Beltran exhibited.

The season started slow for Beltran, but his swing is light years ahead of where it was last year. And now he is beginning to hit the long ball we have all become accustomed to seeing from the switch-hitting slugger. More importantly, Beltran’s durability is downright amazing, considering most of the “so-called experts” said he’d never play 5 straight games. Count ’em folks — Beltran has played in 19 straight games and has told Terry Collins to keep penciling him in that lineup every day — scratching the notion his knees need rest.

Offensively, Beltran is doing the job, hitting .292 with 5 homers and 17 RBI in 106 AB’s. He possesses an OBP of .375 with a slugging percentage of .538. And he is getting used to playing right field, making some very good plays out there, even in the spacious right field corner of Citi Field.

Beltran would be the first to admit he wishes the Mets could have won more when he was here. He takes responsibility for the 2007 and 2008 seasons in which the Mets threw away two shots at getting to the postseason.

The Beltran bashers can’t wait to jettison him out of New York, but trust me — he will be hard to replace. Everyone close to Beltran knows he will likely be in the American League next year where he could DH at least some of the time. He will be missed here as a player and a person.

It’s a shame Mets fans didn’t enjoy watching Beltran play. Quite frankly, he deserved better from the media and those in the stands. In a 3-year stretch from 2006 through 2008, Beltran had seasons of 116, 112, and 112 RBIs. He pulled his weight, which is more than I can say for most of his teammates.

Agree? Disagree? Let Coutinho know in the comments below…

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