Berkman still battling through trying season
ST. LOUIS – Lance Berkman jogged from the right-field foul line shortly before first pitch, his comeback complete but the recovery a process in this trying, telling season for him.
He swung his arms in a circular motion on the walk back from center field, reached the line and jogged in the opposite direction again. This routine continued for a few moments, all while Busch Stadium filled on an unforgiving 100-degree night. The sight of the veteran first baseman carrying on a pre-game workout before the Los Angeles Dodgers' 5-3 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals this deep into the summer was, by itself, a personal victory.
Berkman approached the infield and signed an autograph for a young boy after the Cardinals were introduced. There have been many health tests of late for the Big Puma, and he struggles to compare them to any other experience throughout his decorated 14-plus year career. But little about Berkman, the hard-hitting Texan with a personality as big as his home state, has changed after two trips to the disabled list this season.
He's still the endearing figure who has earned respect in and out of St. Louis' clubhouse. He's still the six-time All-Star who feels content with where his career stands. And he's still the optimistic 36-year-old who wants to do his part to ensure another deep postseason run for a franchise that gave him his first World Series title last October.
A trying, telling season? Try one that feels like more.
"I feel like I've started four different seasons," Berkman told FOXSportsMidwest.com. "You start in spring training, then you start the regular season. Then I had the calf injury and restarted after that. Then I had the knee injury (and) then I restarted after that. It has definitely been a different year for me. I have never been hurt and missed this much time during the course of a season. It's part of the deal. If you get out there, you run the risk of having something like that happen. I try to make the best of the situation going forward."
Berkman has needed that approach over the past three months. Those four different campaigns he mentioned? That's no hyperbole.
His season has included two major injuries – a strained left calf in April and a mangled right knee in May (cartilage tear and tears in the medial meniscus) that caused the returning National League comeback player of the year to miss all but 13 games before his latest return July 14 (he's batting .281 with a .378 on-base percentage after Monday). His season has included doubts about his major-league future – there were concerns that possible ACL surgery could have ended a career that began as a ripe 23-year-old in Houston. And his season has included versatility – he's willing to accept whatever role that serves his first-year manager best.
"I think we just listen and watch him," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "There isn't necessarily a plan put together right now for him. He seems to be responding. … We know his value to this team on the leadership side, and we've talked a lot about it. We value what he brings to the table, but it would be nice to get him locked back in."
For Matheny, yes, it would be nice. There's little doubt that a confident Berkman makes St. Louis better. He stumbled to a 0-for-9 start at the plate, with one ejection, against the Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers after the return from his knee scare. Since, though, he has hit 4-of-13 with two RBI in his last three starts.
Why are those numbers worth tracking? The Cardinals continue to chase the Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates. It's fair to say that Matheny's team will need all the firepower it can muster to overcome those two. (After Monday, Cincinnati held a six-game lead over St. Louis.)
Still, for Berkman, returning to his standard of play remains an ongoing search. The work is far from over.
"I feel better," Berkman said. "It's a process getting back into game shape, getting your swing back. From the get-go, I felt pretty good at the plate but getting your bat speed back and reacting to the speed of the game is something that just takes a while.
"You have to get back into game mode. … I didn't pay any attention to baseball (when out with the knee injury). I had no idea what was going on in baseball. When you come back to it, you have to re-engage."
Yet Berkman's knee injury appeared severe enough that there were concerns at the time he would never re-engage his career. On May 19, he winced as Matheny helped carry him off the field at Dodger Stadium, after he stretched for a throw from shortstop Rafael Furcal to retire the Los Angeles Dodgers' Justin Sellers to end the second inning. That night, he limped around the Cardinals clubhouse, carrying obvious concern about his future.
Six days later, though, Berkman's prospects became much less grim. At that time, the Cardinals announced that he underwent successful surgery and was expected to return in eight to 10 weeks. He began his rehabilitation in Houston, where he spent 11-plus seasons with the Astros, and some close to the star exhaled relief knowing they would regain a trusted leader.
"We always say he's a strong clubhouse presence," Cardinals outfielder/first baseman Allen Craig said. "We mean that when we say that. We like having him around. He was a big part of our team last year and the World Series run. I think he's going to be a big part of (the chemistry) this year too. … I don't think it's new to him to have to overcome injury. He has had a couple knee surgeries, and he knows how to go about his business. He has definitely been through the ringer, as far as that goes."
True, but others have benefited from Berkman's presence as well. To many, he's a trove of insight.
"I'm constantly bouncing questions off him trying to learn what it is he does," infielder/outfielder Matt Carpenter said. "He's got a real good knowledge of what it is to be a good hitter. I'm constantly asking him questions. … He's had some bad luck, but it's a testament to him to keep pursuing. We're looking forward – and I know he's looking forward – to having a strong second half and being one of the guys that we lean on."
A trying season? Sure, but Berkman's legacy within it has yet to be determined.
A telling season? Absolutely, and his recovery allows for imagination.
"I think it's too early to tell," Berkman said of this year's memory. "A lot of it depends on what happens going forward. If we go back to the World Series, and I stay healthy the rest of the year, and we win another championship – then that will be what defines it. But until we get through this last part of the season and see what happens, I'd like to reserve comment on that."