Gil LeBreton

Without Beltre, Rangers feeling the void

ARLINGTON The Adrian Beltre we thought we knew never made it to Texas.

That was the Adrian Beltre who supposedly only hit in contract seasons, who disdained the base on balls and whose major league legacy was on course to be deemed commendable but incomplete.

How wrong we were.

The Beltre that Texas Rangers fans have come to admire and appreciate has been a consummate professional, a feared batsman and, quite possibly, a future Hall of Famer.

When he’s out of the lineup, therefore, the Rangers’ lineup aches from the void. With Prince Fielder beginning the season in a curious funk, Beltre’s absence is compounded.

These are the young Houston Astros in town, of course, and not Koufax, Drysdale and the ’63 Dodgers. Alarms were right to sound when the Rangers left 16 runners on base in the series opener Friday night.

That wasn’t all the fault of the absent Beltre and his balky left quadriceps muscle. But it underlined what Beltre, when he’s healthy and barking, means to the team.

General manager Jon Daniels said before Saturday’s game that the “smart thing” would be to place Beltre on the 15-day disabled list. The official decision on that hasn’t been made yet, but unless Beltre shows up Sunday galloping like Secretariat, Daniels seems to have tipped the club’s hand.

“It’s tough,” Daniels said. “It’s one of those injuries that we expected, without playing, that he would feel better with.”

But the risk of rushing Beltre back into the lineup, Daniels agreed, isn’t worth the short-term rewards. Kevin Kouzmanoff, his able fill-in called up from Triple A, is a veteran major leaguer and unlikely to freeze in the big lights.

Kouzmanoff had a big hit in Friday’s 1-0 victory and drove in a run in the first inning Saturday night.

“It’s a tough thing,” Daniels continued. “You see a game like Friday night, and you’re dying to have his bat in there. The last thing you want, though, is for the thing to grab on him again, and then he’d be down for 2-3 months, not 2-3 weeks.

“In 2011, that’s what happened. He tried to come back early from a hamstring, and he missed an additional three weeks because of it. That’s the last thing we want.”

Clearly, the Rangers are a better team when Beltre plays. A contending team. Frankly, a livelier, more fun to watch team. Beltre’s gusto for the game makes it that way.

It’s hard to figure how, even at age 35, he could be playing for his fourth major league team. He had won Gold Gloves at third base. He had even hit 48 home runs one season — with a home park of Dodger Stadium, no less. And yet, that 2010 season in Boston was a pivotal one for him, a make-good campaign, of sorts, that vaulted him and the Rangers into the World Series — and him, maybe beyond.

The Rangers miss him. And, though maybe reluctantly, Beltre himself realizes that.

“I think Beltre has an awareness of what he means to us,” manager Ron Washington said. “He went out there today [and tested the injured quad muscle], and he knows.”

It was Wash’s way of saying that he thinks Beltre won’t try to push the issue either.

Fielder and his slow start?

“His timing is off,” Washington answered. “One of these days, a pitcher is going to step on the rubber and Fielder’s going to be on time, and I won’t have to answer any more questions about Prince Fielder.”

The manager is right, of course. But Fielder needs Beltre back in the lineup as much as any Ranger does.

In the meantime, there’s a void bigger than Fielder’s sweat pants — bigger than any Rangers fan imagined.

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