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Must C Classic: Beltran launches No. 300 into cove

SAN FRANCISCO -- The Giants' 3-1 victory over the San Diego Padres brought San Francisco well-deserved satisfaction Wednesday. But a hint of frustration came with it.

Carlos Beltran swatted two homers, including the 300th of his career. Tim Lincecum continued his mastery of the Padres by allowing a mere unearned run in seven innings. Third baseman Pablo Sandoval invited a comparison to a distinguished Hall of Famer by making three slick defensive plays.

This display, particularly Beltran's, prompted an inevitable thought: What if he had avoided injuring his right hand and remained healthy through August?

Beltran missed 13 games when he went on the disabled list. The Giants were 5-8 in those games. That doesn't count games in which Beltran appeared when he might have been at less than peak condition. Beltran said that he still occasionally feels a "grabbing sensation, like a sharp pain" when he takes an awkward swing or flails at a bad pitch.

The Giants might still be staring up at the Arizona Diamondbacks, who led second-place San Francisco by eight games pending the result of their series finale at Los Angeles later Wednesday. But a hearty Beltran probably would have left the Giants better-positioned in the Wild Card race, in which they trail Atlanta by 6 1/2 games.

During its first four-game winning streak since July 9-15 (a stretch interrupted by the All-Star break), San Francisco has batted .294 (42-for-143), amassed 11 doubles, hit five homers -- three by Beltran -- and scored eight runs twice. Feel free to consider this a sampling of what the Giants might have done had Beltran remained a constant presence.

"He's an impact player," manager Bruce Bochy said. "You're seeing some things that can happen with him in the lineup."

As usual, Padres right-hander Mat Latos, who entered the game with a 2.47 career ERA against the Giants, didn't let much happen. But Beltran's power was enough. He went deep against Latos with two outs in the first inning and with one out in the sixth.

"Beltran's one of the best players in the National League. He's got that in him," Padres manager Bud Black said.

Beltran's second homer unleashed a torrent of factoids. Not only was it his 300th career homer, but it also landed in McCovey Cove, thus becoming Splash Hit No. 59. It also sealed Beltran's 30th career multiple-homer effort.

"He makes this park look small sometimes," Bochy said.

How seriously Beltran will regard the Giants as a potential suitor when he enters free agency this winter remains to be seen, because he dropped no hints.

"That's a decision I'm going to make in the offseason," he said. "I haven't thought about it, honestly, since I've been here. I've had a good time."

Citing the expected return of catcher Buster Posey and second baseman Freddy Sanchez in 2012, Beltran added, "I believe this team has a lot of ways to improve."

Lincecum (13-12) didn't dazzle the Padres. But he staged a clinic in clutch pitching as San Diego went 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position.

"I wouldn't say they were quality strikes, but in counts where I'm hoping they were swinging, I made some good pitches," said Lincecum, who has thrown a NL-high 3,430 pitches this year. "I wouldn't say I felt my strongest, but I think on some of those days when you don't have your best stuff, or you don't feel like the fastball has the bite you're used to, you slow things down and not try so hard."

Lincecum improved to 9-4 with a 1.96 ERA lifetime against San Diego, including 4-1, 1.64 this year. He's also a remarkable 54-4 when the Giants score at least three runs for him.

The defensive support Lincecum received in this outing was just as essential. Most of it was provided by Sandoval, who twice threw from one knee to record putouts after corralling difficult ground balls and pouncing on Latos' fifth-inning sacrifice-bunt try to start a double play.

Said Bochy, "He had the Brooks Robinson look down there, didn't he? He was throwing from everywhere."

Sandoval's most important play might have been his third-inning diving stop of Jesus Guzman's smash with runners at the corners and two outs. Sandoval had time to glance at second base and, finding no forceout there, still had time to throw out Guzman at first.

"That was going to cost us a run," Bochy said.

Asked if he could have made those plays last year, when he was approximately 40 pounds heavier, Sandoval coyly said, "I don't know. I don't remember."

For the Giants, this was a game to remember amid a time to forget.

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