Cardinals-Astros Preview

Hitting 50 points below his career average and dogged by
multiple injuries, Lance Berkman 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 and Matt Holliday 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 (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.

After scoring 16 runs while splitting their first two games in
Milwaukee over the weekend, the Astros were limited to J.R. Towles’
homer in a 4-1 loss Sunday.

Houston is batting .287 at home – 38 points higher than its road
average – but facing Jaime Garcia (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, who picked
up two more saves against the Reds while replacing former closer
Ryan Franklin. 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.