It has been nearly eight years since Carlos Beltran last called himself a Royal. In that time, not once has he returned to his former home of Kansas City.
Finally, as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals, Beltran makes his long- awaited homecoming this evening in the opener of a three-game series at Kauffman Stadium.
Beltran began what has been an excellent career with the Royals, who selected him in the second round of the 1995 draft. He spent his first six-plus seasons with Kansas City, hitting .287 with 123 homers, 516 runs batted in and 164 stolen bases over 795 games while winning American League Rookie of the Year honors in 1999.
But with a big payday looming, the Royals were forced to deal Beltran to the Astros in a three-team trade on June 24, 2004 and the switch-hitting outfielder joined the New York Mets the following offseason after inking a massive seven-year, $119 million contract.
Injuries and a slight drop off in production marred Beltran's stay in New York and the pending free agent was dealt to the Giants prior to last year's trade deadline. The 35-year-old then signed a two-year, $26-million deal with the Cardinals in December to help replace Albert Pujols' production in the lineup.
Beltran is hitting .307 with 19 homers and 48 RBI in 67 games this year as a bit of a resurgence and is a lifetime .299 hitter at Kauffman Stadium with 60 homers and 268 RBI. He had never even faced the Royals since his departure to the National League until last weekend's interleague series in St. Louis, in which the Royals took two of three.
Beltran went 6-for-14 in the series with an RBI and the 300th stolen base of his career.
"I just can't wait to go back and look at the stadium," Beltran told St. Louis' official website last weekend in St. Louis. "I know all those memories are going to come back. That's where my career began, and Kansas City will be in my heart forever."
Beltran will look to get his current club back over .500 after Thursday's 2-1 loss to the Tigers in 10 innings dropped the Cardinals to 35-35 and four games out of first place in the NL Central.
Kyle Lohse gave up just one run -- a fourth-inning homer to Prince Fielder -- over seven innings, but the bullpen allowed a bases-loaded RBI single in the 10th frame. St. Louis' offense, meanwhile, went 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position and Matt Holliday drove in the only run with a sac fly in the fifth.
"These guys are trying hard and sometimes you don't get things to go your way," Lohse said. "It's not like our guys are going up there and laying down. They're putting good at-bats together. We're just one break away, here or there it seems, of busting the game open."
Taking the mound for the Cardinals will be Joe Kelly, who is set for just his third career start and first on the road.
The 2009 third-round pick made his MLB debut on June 10 versus the Indians and did not factor into a 4-1 defeat, allowing a run on seven hits over five innings. Kelly then lasted just 4 1/3 frames versus the Royals last Saturday, but again got a no-decision after yielding three runs -- two earned -- on seven hits in St. Louis' 10-7 win.
The 24-year-old righty went 2-5 with a 2.86 ERA in 12 starts with Triple-A Memphis prior to being recalled.
The Royals series win over the Cardinals is part of a 7-2 surge that has pulled the club to within 4 1/2 games of first place in the AL Central. Kansas City followed its series at St. Louis by taking two of three in Houston, securing the series win with Wednesday's 2-1 triumph.
Bruce Chen took the hill on just three days' rest and threw 5 2/3 innings of one-run ball and Jonathan Broxton worked out of trouble in the ninth to secure his 18th save.
"I felt good," Chen said. "I felt like I was pounding the strike zone, my catcher called a great game."
The Royals logged only four hits in the game, a season-low for a win.
Vin Mazzaro hopes for a little more support this evening as he makes his sixth appearance and fifth start this season with Kansas City.
The right-hander only lasted three innings in a loss at the Pirates on June 9, but had a solid outing in St. Louis on Friday. Mazzaro hurled six scoreless innings of five-hit ball, walking one and striking out four in a 3-2 win. Tightness in his right calf led to his exit despite only 80 pitches.
Mazzaro, 25, is 3-1 on the season with a 2.57 ERA and hadn't logged a decision in his previous two starts versus the Cardinals before the win. He also moved to just 1-6 with a 4.34 ERA in 10 career starts versus the NL.
Despite last weekend's series loss, the Cardinals have still won 13 of the last 20 encounters in the I-70 Series.