05/17/2003 5:06 PM ET
Notes: Berkman's struggles ending
Outfielder has been hot after unusually slow start
HOUSTON -- Astros outfielder Lance Berkman had been through slumps before. But this one was different. This one began Opening Day.
By Gene Duffey / MLB.com
"It was strange," he said. "I never had a feel. You go up there and it's rhythm and timing. I never got into a good rhythm at the plate from the get-go."
In his first three full seasons in the Majors Berkman hit .297, .331 and .292. At the end of April he was hitting an anemic .208.
"I've been through bad times before, but generally three months into the season, after the All-Star break," he said. "Every year at some point during the season you can expect to go through a bad time. It's magnified if it happens to be right out of the chute. Everybody knows exactly how bad it is."
The Astros had envisioned a powerful threesome of Jeff Bagwell, Berkman and Jeff Kent hitting 3-4-5. But a hole had developed in the middle.
Manager Jimy Williams permanently moved Berkman from cleanup to fifth in the lineup April 29, trading places with Kent.
Berkman didn't panic. He trusted himself and trusted his swing.
"Everybody tinkers," he said. "It's not that you don't try different things. Deep down you know you've done this before. 'I can probably figure this out.' "
Berkman collected four hits and drove in six runs May 1 in an 8-7 loss to Atlanta. That started the turnaround.
"A lot it just has to do with getting on a roll," he said. "You get a broken bat single, then you hit a ball hard, now you've got two hits and you kind of feel a little bit better about yourself. The next time you come up you're a little more relaxed and you get another hit and before you know it, you're on a roll."
Berkman went 8-for-22 on Houston's recent road trip to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. He entered Saturday's game hitting .352 for the month of May, raising his season average to .270.
"I just tried to get him to relax," Williams said of dropping him to fifth in the order. "Did [the turnaround] happen per chance, or because of the move, I have no idea."
Berkman, batting right-handed, singled in the winning run in the bottom of the eighth of Friday's 4-2 win over Philadelphia.
"I'm still not where I want to be," he said. "But I'm better off than I was two weeks ago."
Putting the bull in the pen:
The Astros bullpen doesn't have a nickname yet, but it ranks second in the National League and third in the majors with a 2.67 ERA. Four members of the bullpen have ERAs under 2.00, with Ricky Stone at 1.14, Brad Lidge at 1.48, Octavio Dotel at 1.52 and Billy Wagner at 1.88.
Someone suggested calling them "Billy Wagner and the Wild Bunch."
"They're good enough to have their own names," protested Wagner.
But there's no mistaking that the left-handed closer, who saved his 10th game Friday night, is the leader of the pen.
"He's the president down there," said middle reliever Pete Munro. "He keeps us in line."
All the relievers have been keeping the opposition in line.
"I don't know if amazing is the word, just consistent," said Munro, who is 3-1. "We have been blessed with some good fortune. This is a late scoring team. That's why the bullpen has so many decisions. We really haven't had [starters] go seven or eight [innings] on a consistent basis."
The bullpen has won 15 games, most in the Majors.
"We try to not overwork them, so they become vulnerable to injuries," Williams said. "The key is they haven't gotten into high pitch counts in an inning."
It truly has been a team effort.
"If somebody has an off night, get him out of there and the next guy will get it done," said Munro.
Off day Monday:
After playing 20 consecutive days, the Astros will be off Monday. They begin a three-game series with St. Louis Tuesday at home.
"It probably helps our bullpen as much as anything," Williams said. "It helps our starters too."
The Astros haven't decided whether to use a call up from Triple-A New Orleans to start Wednesday's home game against St. Louis or move Jeriome Robertson up in the rotation. Robertson started Friday night against Philadelphia, pitching six innings with no decision.
The Astros were originally scheduled to be off Thursday, May 29, but that day will be used to make up a rainout in St. Louis.
Short hops :
Manager Jimy Williams has made successful use of his entire 25-roster. "Every guy in that clubhouse has helped this team win a game, or multiple games," he said. "Look what [Jose] Vizcaino did in Pittsburgh. Here's a guy batting .150." Vizcaino doubled in three runs with two outs in the ninth for a 6-3 win Tuesday against the Pirates. He replaced Jeff Kent two days later in the starting lineup and went 3-for-4. . . . Friday's 4-2 victory over Philadelphia gave the Astros eight wins in a row at Minute Maid Park, tying the franchise record for the stadium. The park opened in 2000 as Enron Field. . . . Sunday's game will be a 7:05 start for ESPN.
Gene Duffey is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.