Hitting 50 points below his career average and dogged by multiple injuries, Lance Berkman(notes) appeared to be in a steep decline last season when the Houston Astros parted ways with the five-time All-Star.
Less than a month into Berkman’s on-field tenure in St. Louis, the Cardinals would beg to differ.
Looking revitalized with Albert Pujols(notes) and Matt Holliday(notes) hitting in front of him, Berkman returns to Houston - his home for 11 1/2 major league seasons - on Tuesday night when the Cardinals and Astros open a three-game set.
With Houston (8-14) going nowhere in late July, it shipped Berkman - in the final year of a six-year, $85 million contract - to the New York Yankees for a pair of minor leaguers, ending a nearly 1,600-game tenure for one of the best players in franchise history.
But Berkman didn’t play well in 2010, batting .245 and dealing with early-season knee and groin injuries before the trade. He spent a second stint on the 15-day disabled list once arriving in the Bronx, hit .255 in 37 games and didn’t have a $15 million option exercised.
St. Louis (12-10) signed him to a one-year deal for $8 million in December, and Berkman has proven his worth thus far. He’s hitting .377 overall, including .488 with six homers and 14 RBIs since April 11.
He had two hits in Sunday’s 3-0 win over Cincinnati, giving him eight multihit games in his last 11.
“I just feel healthier than I have in a while,” Berkman told MLB.com. “My legs feel good. My knees aren’t bothering me. I think that has a lot to do with having a good base to hit from. Other than that, my swing feels really good. I hope I can keep it going.”
He’s been especially good in the No. 5 slot behind Pujols and Holliday, but Pujols might not be in front of him Tuesday. The three-time NL MVP exited Sunday with a tight left hamstring and is day-to-day.
The potential of Pujols being out, though, isn’t the primary reason Berkman says he’s “not crazy about going back” to Houston.
“I feel like I’ve kind of turned the page, and part of me just wants to be done with it,” Berkman said. “… “I think part of the reason that it’s not nearly as difficult for me as it could have been is because most of the guys that I’m close to are gone. It’s really not the same place. It’s not the same team.”
Berkman will get his first swings against former teammate Bud Norris(notes) (1-1, 4.91 ERA), who has had the Cardinals’ number. The right-hander has 16 career wins, but he’s 5-1 with a 2.27 ERA in six starts against St. Louis.
Pujols is just 4 for 17 (.235) versus Norris, who gave up three runs over six innings Wednesday and didn’t get a decision in a 4-3 win over the Mets.
Houston is batting .287 at home - 38 points higher than its road average - but facing Jaime Garcia(notes) (3-0, 1.44) won’t be easy. Garcia wasn’t perfect Wednesday against Washington, surrendering three runs - one earned - over five innings, but earned a 5-3 win thanks to four strong innings from St. Louis’ bullpen.
The final three outs came courtesy of Mitchell Boggs(notes), who picked up two more saves against the Reds while replacing former closer Ryan Franklin(notes). Boggs hasn’t allowed a run in his last 9 1-3 innings.
Garcia will certainly need to be sharper than he was Aug. 3 against Houston, his lone start in the series. He allowed eight runs over five innings in an 18-4 loss.