JUPITER, Fla. -- With Allen Craig progressing well in his return from right knee surgery, Mike Matheny expanded his look at lineup possibilities for the Cardinals on Thursday by giving Carlos Beltran his first start in center field. Left-hander Gio Gonzalez was on the mound for the Nationals. Because of past knee woes, Beltran hasn't played center field in the regular season since 2010. But the Cards are counting on Beltran making a smooth transition to center on certain days a left-handed starter is on the mound, because that would allow the right-handed-hitting Craig to start in right field. While Craig might also spell Lance Berkman at first from time to time, the key to his getting consistent at-bats will be Beltran shifting to center in place of Jon Jay.
"I think that would be the easy thing," Matheny said. "Right now, Jon Jay plays an extremely good center field. We know that we can preserve Carlos a little bit more by putting him in right, where there's not as much demand [on his body]. But we also understand we want to get Allen some at-bats. So we'll have to be creative at times, and there are other times where it will work itself out. It will probably be a better fit for Carlos to be in center than for Allen, so when we do have a left-handed pitcher, it makes sense to give Carlos some repetition to where he feels comfortable out there. He's had more innings there than anywhere else, so he should feel comfortable." Matheny said he has been impressed with the way Beltran has paced himself this spring, and it's clear the veteran Beltran understands the intricacies of outfield play. "You can tell he thrives on doing things right," Matheny said. "And that's what center field is -- the conscientiousness." To that point, Matheny and his staff have been pleased with the strides Jay has made in "quarterbacking" in the outfield. "He's not afraid to say something to Matt Holliday or Carlos," Matheny said. "That's what center field is about. Watching infield play, watching the positioning, watching the particular at-bat." The Cardinals still haven't ruled out the possibility of Craig, who is appearing in Minor League games, being ready by Opening Day.