Hot in Houston: Berkman's torrid bat sparking Triple Crown talk
ST. LOUIS -- Lance Berkman's grin is easy and familiar, which is the way everything seems to be going for him these days. His dark hair flops easily onto his forehead with a nice, boyish curl. The conversation spills out -- funny anecdotes, compelling opinions, fresh observations -- in a comfortable, easy cadence. And, of course, the act of hitting a baseball, something many ballplayers claim is the single most difficult feat in the athletic universe, looks ridiculously easy for the Astros' first baseman lately.
In May, Berkman hit a stunning .471. That's four seventy one. He reached base almost six times for every 10 trips he took to the plate. Since the start of the season, he has been everything that the needy Astros could hope for and then some, a walking, slugging, stealing, defending, do-it-all player who has kept the Astros afloat in the NL Central. With his sizzling burst in May, Berkman, the only player in either league among the top three in batting average (.382, second in the NL), home runs (17, third) and RBI (48, third), has also resurrected the possibility of someone becoming baseball's first Triple Crown winner since Boston's Carl Yastrzemski 1967.
"I don't think he realizes how good he is," whispers his manager, Cecil Cooper. "This guy is good. I mean, he's REAL good."
None of this is lost on Berkman. He realizes what he's going through. He knows what lies ahead. So, easy then? It's not even close to that. Fun? No, it's not really that, either. It may not look like it, but there is a burden to being Lance Berkman.
It's a lucky thing for the Astros that he can handle it.
"There's some comfort, I guess you would say, in looking at it and saying, 'Well, I've gotten off to such a good start, that even if I go into a free fall, I'll likely come out of it,'" Berkman says, lounging on the back of a dugout bench at Busch Stadium. "But you have to guard against becoming mentally complacent. If you let up mentally, even for a second, that's when they get on you. So you play the whole season -- at least I do -- kind of on a mental razor's edge of trying to maintain concentration, 'cause I know how quickly it can go south if you don't."
Such is the load that the 32-year-old Texan carries. The early season favorite for the National League MVP, the NL player of the month for May, Berkman simply can't ease up, both for himself and his team.
But how can anyone sustain this pace? His .471 average in May blew away everyone -- the Braves' Chipper Jones, for example, is still hitting over .400 yet managed a mere .417 last month -- and was the third-highest for that month in the last 50 years. Berkman's on-base percentage was a stunning .553. Only Jones (at .537) also reached base in at least half of his plate appearances. Berkman's May OBP was the sixth best in baseball history, according to the Astros.
And he hit for power, too. His .856 slugging percentage last month -- propelled by nine home runs, 11 doubles and a triple -- ranked 12th in baseball since 1956. He even stole six bases.
"He's got it all going right now," says the Braves' Jones, a fellow switch-hitter who leads the majors with a .418 average; Berkman enters the weekend at .382. "The single most impressive thing, when you watch him swing, is how long the bat stays in the zone.
"Guys with uppercut or down swings, their bat stays in the zone maybe this long," Jones says, holding his hands maybe a foot apart. "His bat stays in the zone this long." He opens his hands to perhaps 18 inches. "That allows him to hit all pitches to all fields."
Mets closer Billy Wagner, a former teammate on the Astros, calls Berkman "Goofy Pop," for his ability to hit with power to every part of the ballpark. Wagner remembers, back in 1999, his first look at a 23-year-old puffy-cheeked kid from Waco who just got out of Houston's Rice University.
"When he first got introduced to the fans, and they let him take BP, [former Astros slugger] Derek Bell came up and said, 'This guy's got it,'" Wagner says. "They had a home run contest and Berkman beat him. And I mean beat him bad. Berkman was hitting the balls a mile [in the Astrodome], and we were all just, 'Wow.'"
Berkman has honed that stroke throughout his career, which now includes four All-Star appearances, four finishes in the top five in MVP voting, a career .304 average and a .321 average in 29 postseason games. Nothing, though, has come close to matching this start.
Even before May, Berkman was on mission to erase last season from his mind, when he hit a career-low .278, albeit with 34 home runs and 102 RBIs. He was phenomenal in April, with a 1.030 OPS (combined on-base and slugging percentages), and after his May, he stormed into June leading everybody in total bases, extra-base hits, slugging percentage, doubles and runs.
"He's playing in the Major Leagues right now like I played in high school," says Houston pitcher Brandon Backe. "A lot of guys can jump on his back and just ride the wave."
The Astros, as it works out, have surged with him. The team began the season 13-16. But with Berkman busting loose in May, with some help from Carlos Lee (who had 30 RBIs in May), Houston went on a 17-11 tear, staying within reach of the sprinting Cubs in the NL Central.
For the Astros to stay close, though, Berkman has to keep this up. Nobody knows that more than he does.