SAN FRANCISCO—What the Mets wanted to do in the first half was hang around until they got Carlos Beltran back.

But unlike last season, the Mets didn’t wait for their reinforcements to return, they treated them as a bonus. They did a good job of playing without their star center fielder, going 48-40, and being only one game behind of a playoff spot.

Tonight, almost exactly six months to the day of announcing knee surgery on January 16, Carlos Beltran returns to the Mets lineup, batting cleanup in center field.

What kind of Beltran are the Mets getting? He told reporters on Sunday that he’s about 80 percent healthy. Well, 80 percent of Carlos Beltran is still better than 100 percent of Jeff Francoeur, who will be the man to lose playing time in his return.

If Beltran can hit the way we’re accustomed to seeing, and the way he did in his rehab games, batting .367, then the Mets lineup becomes one of the best in the entire National League.

It’ll lengthen the lineup as tonight’s order will look as follows: Jose Reyes, Angel Pagan (RF), David Wright, Carlos Beltran (CF), Ike Davis, Jason Bay, Josh Thole, Ruben Tejada (2B), and R.A. Dickey.

As you can see, Davis will move down one spot, pushing first-half bust Jason Bay down to sixth. There could be up to three switches in this order before game time.

Jose Reyes will be a game-time decision, as he’s still battling a sore right oblique. Although Josh Thole has been catching the knuckleballer Dickey, it’s not guaranteed he’ll play tonight. Alex Cora, the lefty, may replace the righy Ruben Tejada at second base against the tough Tim Lincecum.

With all that being said, the Mets are happy to have Beltran back, especially against the two-time defending NL Cy Young Award winner Lincecum.

It hasn’t been a Tim Lincecum-type season so far for the pitcher known as “The Freak.” After winning a questionable Cy Young Award last season, Lincecum has a higher ERA than normal.

What really raised his ERA this season were two starts in May. He combined to allow 11 runs in 9.2 innings after getting off to another phenomenal start. He started 5-0 with an ERA of 1.76. Now he’s 9-4 with an ERA of 3.16.

For the Mets, it’ll be knuckleballer R.A. Dickey kicking off the second half of the season, as manager Jerry Manuel set his rotation in reverse order.

The Mets have lost each of Dickey’s last three starts after winning six straight. Dickey has lost two of them, falling to 6-2 on the season.

In his last start against the Braves, he was cruising for 6.2 innings in a 2-2 game, before giving up back-to-back home runs, putting the Mets in a 4-2 hole they wouldn’t get out of.

He has still pitched reasonably well for the most part, but the question is, will he ever be as consistent as he was during his six-game winning streak? The Mets hope so, with an eye towards the trading deadline in 16 days, where they’ll probably trade for a starting pitcher, if anything.

Maybe the best part about getting three days off for the Mets is resting their overworked bullpen, and most importantly, giving Jose Reyes three days to try and recover from his oblique injury.

This is only the beginning of the most crucial stretch of games of the Mets’ season. It’s the start of an 11-game west coast trip that can’t put the Mets in the playoffs, but can certainly bury them with a bad record.

They need to at least go 6-5, and no worse than 5-6. If they can do that, they’ll come home at the end of the month, ready to enter the pennant race in August and September, with an eye on October.

R.A. Dickey this season (10 starts)
6-2, 2.77 ERA, 65 IP, 66 hits, 19 BB, 48 SO

Tim Lincecum vs. New York (May 9)
ND, 6 IP, 2 ER, 7 hits, 2 BB, 8 SO

2010 season series (New York vs. San Francisco)
May 7: New York 6, San Francisco 4
May 8: New York 5, San Francisco 4 (11)
May 9: San Francisco 6, New York 5
Mets lead series 2-1

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