Berkman expected to debut on Tuesday
Veteran first baseman looks to add punch to Astros' lineup
HOUSTON -- You can't blame Astros slugger Lance Berkman for being a little fired up. Berkman has been nothing short of a caged puma for the past six weeks, forced to watch the Astros get off to a slow start while he recuperated from March 13 left knee surgery.
In his absence, the Astros lost their first eight games before winning three of four on the road -- including their first series win, over the weekend against the Cubs -- but are still struggling at the plate with a .215 team average and three home runs, having been shut out three times.
First-year manager Brad Mills tried 12 different lineups in the team's first 12 games, and he'll be happy to fill out lineup card No. 13, when Berkman is expected to return to action Tuesday against the Marlins at Minute Maid Park. Astros general manager Ed Wade said Berkman had a little bit of swelling in the knee Monday, but should be good to go for Tuesday.
Berkman is eager to finally get his season under way and remains optimistic about the Astros.
"I'm going to tell you right now: If we keep getting the starting pitching we've gotten to this point in the season, we'll make the playoffs," said Berkman, who went 3-for-6 with a homer in a two-game weekend rehab stint at Triple-A Round Rock.
Sure, the Astros have gotten terrific starting pitching their last time through the rotation, but their problems run much deeper. Their offensive struggles are downright shocking. All-Star outfielders Hunter Pence (.156 batting average) and Carlos Lee (.104) combined for one homer and two RBIs through the first 12 games, but they should benefit from Berkman's presence.
"Lance is a big part of the lineup and the team, and to get him back is going to create more offense," said Lee. "We need it right now. We need to pick it up. Lance is a guy that is capable of getting on base a lot and doing a lot of damage. We hope he can come back quick and be ready to go."
Wade didn't want to guess how much better the club might have been offensively if Berkman hadn't gotten injured in Spring Training, but he said the addition of one of the game's best switch-hitters has several impacts.
"It changes a lot of what happens," Wade said. "It takes some of the pressure off the other guys and creates a different set of circumstances for the opposition. When they go over the advance scouting reports on our club, knowing Berkman's in the lineup creates a different dynamic."
And it allows Mills to bunch Pence, Berkman and Lee together in the lineup, which has the potential to be a formidable 3-4-5 punch. It also allows Pedro Feliz, who had hit third four times and fifth three times, to hit lower in the lineup, which better suits him. Geoff Blum, who got most of the time at first while Berkman was out, will return to being used in a utility role to strengthen the bench.
"It's hard to say what the impact will be, but let's face it, we've faced some of the game's best [pitchers] right out of the chute," Berkman said. "I don't care who you stick up there against [Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Roy Halladay and Adam Wainwright], you're going to struggle. They're just so good. But I do think me being there [will be beneficial] just because I think it makes guys hit where they should in the lineup.
"Whether they're comfortable or not, asking guys to hit third that haven't done it before or consistently, it's a tall task. That's a tough assignment, and it takes some getting used to. That's not a position you can roll somebody in there. If they can put me in there and I'm able to hit there, that takes pressure off of other guys, just for the fact they're back in spots in the lineup they're more comfortable."
But how quickly will it take Berkman -- who had only 11 at-bats in Spring Training -- to get his timing down and feel comfortable against Major League pitching? He hit .274 with 25 homers and 80 RBIs in 136 games last year, missing 18 games with a strained calf.
"We shouldn't be surprised if he starts slow, but at the same time he swung the bat very well at Round Rock," Wade said. "He swung the bat fairly regularly during the time he was disabled. Knowing Lance, he's going to want to hit the ground running and we hope that's the case."
Berkman missed the first 27 games of the 2005 season after undergoing offseason knee surgery to reconstruct a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. He hit .234 in May with one homer in 77 at-bats before hitting .308 in June and .362 in July. He batted .293 with 24 homers and 82 RBIs that year.
Prior to the 2006 season, he underwent an arthroscopic procedure to clean out scar tissue in his right knee. He missed a chunk of time in the spring, but had his biggest year at the plate by hitting .315 with 45 homers and a franchise-record 136 RBIs.
"I don't expect to roll right in and hit .400," Berkman said. "But as far as how long it's going to take me to get the speed of a big league game, you never know. I've come out of Spring Training and really struggled for a month and a half. The best year I ever had [in 2006], I had two weeks of Spring Training and came out of the chute and hit six homers in the first 10 games.
"You can't even tell how it's going to go. I hate to make it sound like a crapshoot, but that's how it is with timing. Sometimes I have my timing out of the gate, and sometimes, no matter how many at-bats I get [in Spring Training], I struggle with my timing. I can't explain it, but I'm hoping it will be good."
Before Berkman went down with the knee injury, Mills had him batting fifth in the order behind Pence (third) and Lee (fourth). Berkman has hit primarily third, but Mills believes hitting Pence third will allow the club to take better advantage of his speed, as well as get better pitches for Lee.
Of course, getting anyone on base has been a difficult task for Houston, but the return of Berkman should only help the Astros' cause during a span in which they play 16 of their next 19 games at home.
"I've talked to Mills and some of the other staff guys, and they believe, as I do, that we've had better at-bats the last three or four games," Wade said. "Some of the guys that have been struggling have been making better contact with greater consistency.
"We know what they've done in the past. Carlos and Hunter and Pedro Feliz are all run-producers, and they're going to come through in the clutch for us. We recognize it's been a difficult stretch here and hopefully we can get out of it. Bringing Lance on board will help."
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.