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29 April 2011

The Lance Berkman Factor

Lance Berkman
Lance Berkman celebrates a home run (Getty/Bob Levey
I remember when I heard the news that one of my most favorite players was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals.  I was bartending at the time, and as I came into work my customers broke the news to me.  I was delighted.  I knew this player was solidly in the autumn of his career - a career that seemed to be snowballing to the end because of injuries.  But I did not care.  I cherished the idea that his ability to take over any given game with his bat was only matched by a tremendous amount of baseball savvy.  I believe I did in fact dance a little jig once I determined they weren't pulling my chain.

The year: 2004.  The player: Larry Walker.

Now it is deja vu all over again.  In the past off-season I was thrilled in a like manner with the news that Cardinals GM John Mozeliak had fought off the efforts of his Chicago Cubs counterpart and secured Lance Berkman for a year.  I did not dance a jig this time, but I was pleased.

I knew of Berkman's knee injury.  I knew that he had in his past played a passable if ugly outfield, but had been relegated for years to first base.  I had concerns, but the pluses of having this guy with the Birds on the Bat far outweighed the negatives - despite the overwhelming response of an underwhelmed media.  I did not hesitate to claim a charter membership in the Lance Berkman Fan Club  amongst the Cardinal fans on twitter.

But I never thought Berkman would be this good.  Apparently, the Houston Astros never thought he'd be this again, either.

Berkman returned to his old stomping grounds this week and destroyed Houston in Minute Maid Park.  He laced 8 hits in 14 at bats during the series, including 2 home runs, two doubles, and drove in eight runs.  That gives a slashline of .571/.571/1.143 and and an incredible OPS of 1.714.  On Thursday, Berkman raked in a 4-5 night, 2 homers, a double and 11 total bases.  He had a home run, a single, and 4 RBI in the Cardinals 9-run sixth inning alone.  His 3-run blast that inning was from his weaker right side giving St. Louis a lead it wouldn't relinquish and made a winner of starting pitcher Kyle McClellan.  He also added a solo shot in the ninth.

And he wasn't simply a weapon with the bat, he showed some glove with at least two eye-popping catches in right field.  His wonderful running catch deep in the right field corner on Wednesday was a big factor in St Louis holding off the Astros late inning rally.

Berkman is now batting .410 on the season, which is second in the Major Leagues behind teammate Matt Holliday's .432 mark.  Berkman's 8 HR is second in MLB and he ranks 3rd in RBI with 22.  He is also riding a streak of seven straight games with multiple hits.  Additionally, he ranks first in the majors with 66 total bases, first in slugging at .795, second with an OPS of 1.263, and fourth in on-base percentage with .467.

It's a helluva start for a player deemed to be over the hill.  But his knees have been given a chance to heal and provide a solid base from which he can hit the ball with authority.  And he has.

It is only April, and the baseball season is a long one.  It is not out of line to remain concerned if Berkman's health will hold up enough to maintain his regained power.  But unlike Walker, Berkman does not suffer from a degenerative condition that leaves his short-term future cloudy.

If he stays healthy, Berkman could leave Mozeliak open for questioning his judgement in signing the Big Puma.  No longer wondering why the GM went out on a limb to sign Berkman, but rather "why for only one year?"

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