If you hit like Babe Ruth's big brother, they don't ask about your defense. Last week Lance Berkman shook off a slow start—he hit .214 with no homers and just two doubles in his first eight games—and laid waste to the Diamondbacks and the Dodgers with six home runs, 12 RBIs, a .412 batting average and an OPS that looks like the answer on a history test: 1.628. The Cardinals rightfielder's assault on the NL West came just in time. The team's 2--6 start featured brutal bullpen meltdowns, some wretched defense and five losses by one or two runs. The offense also failed to score more than three runs in all but one game—they got to four in that one.
Enter the Puma, who hit two homers in Arizona on April 11 and kept raking. By the time the Cards boarded the plane and headed home from L.A. on Sunday night, Berkman had vaulted himself onto the early NL leader boards for runs, homers, slugging and OPS, and moved 8--8 St. Louis to within 1½ games of the division-leading Reds.
This is the player the Cardinals spent $8 million to sign this winter. After a broken season in which the Astros traded him to the Yankees—for whom he hit just .255 with one homer in 106 at bats—Berkman was a free agent for the first time in a market crowded with first base--DH types coming off better years. St. Louis saw Berkman as a solution to its OBP and lefty power issues—but had to ask him to play the outfield, something he hadn't done regularly since 2004 and which he barely did in spring training because of nagging elbow and calf injuries.
Berkman hasn't been tested much. According to the website FanGraphs, just 14 balls have been hit into his zone—the area typically covered by a rightfielder. He's made the play on 13 of them, placing him above the average. On the other hand, just four players have made fewer than his four plays outside the normal zone. This confirms what we expected from Berkman: He doesn't have the speed to cover a lot of ground in rightfield, but he'll catch what he gets to. The Cardinals' pitching staff helps, Only the Braves allow fewer fly balls.
Tony La Russa is playing to Berkman's strengths and minimizing exposure to his weaknesses. The manager gets Berkman off the field late in games; he has been replaced on defense six times, a figure that would be higher if Matt Holliday hadn't gone down for a week with an appendectomy. Also, Berkman's two off days have come against lefthanded pitchers. The switch-hitter is 0 for 7 with a walk from the right side of the plate in 2011, after .231 and .171 averages, with terrible plate discipline and power, in '09 and '10.
The decision to put Berkman back in the outfield at age 35 was a risk. But so far it has worked, thanks to his bat, the Cards' pitching staff and La Russa's aggressive protection of Berkman in the field and on the right side of the plate. Cashing in on a gamble for three weeks is one thing. If Berkman can make it work all season, it could pay off in a return to October baseball for St. Louis.
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