All-Star outfielders Lance Berkman of the Cardinals and Jacoby Ellsbury of the Red Sox were named the winners of the 2011 Comeback Player of the Year Awards on Thursday, as the annual rollout of Major League Baseball's individual hardware got under way.
Berkman, 35, recaptured the form he showed for many seasons in Houston, and he is a key reason why St. Louis is in the midst of a National League Championship Series battle against Milwaukee. He hit .301 with 31 home runs and 94 RBIs, a .412 on-base percentage and a .547 slugging percentage, after batting a combined .248 with 14 home runs and 58 RBIs between the Astros and Yankees last season.
He ranked among the NL leaders in homers (tied for ninth overall, first with 22 road homers), RBIs (tied for 11th), walks (92, fourth), slugging (fifth) and OBP (third).
Berkman's 31 homers were the second-most by a switch-hitter in St. Louis history, behind the 35 hit by Ripper Collins in 1934. Berkman appeared in 145 games, his most since 2008, and that included 107 starts in right field, 16 in left field and 16 at first base. He joined Chris Carpenter (2009) as the second Comeback Player of the Year winner in three years for St. Louis, and not coincidentally, the two were each signed last month to contract extensions -- Berkman through next season, Carpenter through 2013.
"It's not something that you ever set out to win," Berkman said before Game 4, "but after having been down last year, to be able to come back this year and post a good season, it is satisfying, and you know, I'm certainly happy to win it.
"The thing worked out exactly like I thought it was going to, if I could stay healthy -- maybe not hitting .300, but certainly from a health standpoint, to at least play an adequate right field. In my mind it was never an issue, and I don't feel like it was."
Ellsbury likely will factor into the American League Most Valuable Player balloting when the Baseball Writers' Association of America announces that honor next month. Boston's historic collapse may have adversely affected his chances, but his overall performance stood in stark contrast to 2010, when injuries limited him to just 18 games.
In his fifth big league season, Ellsbury, 28, was the first Red Sox player and one of four Major Leaguers -- the most in a single season -- to record 30 homers and 30 stolen bases, and he posted career highs in nearly every offensive category. The center fielder hit .321 with 32 homers, 105 RBIs, 39 steals, 46 doubles, five triples and 119 runs, and he led the Majors with 364 total bases and 83 extra-base hits.
He also became the first Red Sox player to have a 30-homer, 100-RBI season while serving as the club's primary leadoff hitter -- and he was the first Major League leadoff hitter to accomplish that feat since Alfonso Soriano did it for the Yankees in 2002. In addition, Ellsbury became the fourth player in Major League history to reach 200 hits, 100 RBIs, 35 steals and 30 homers in a single season, joining Vladimir Guerrero and Soriano (2002) and Alex Rodriguez (1998).
"I know what I'm capable of doing. I know everybody has been surprised by the power numbers, but it's always been there," Ellsbury said. "It just hasn't translated to the game, but every year I've consistently gotten better. This is kind of what I was looking for last year."
Ellsbury reached the 30-30 mark in style, homering twice during the first game of a Sept. 25 doubleheader against the rival Yankees in New York.
"I'm definitely very proud of reaching that mark," he said then. "It's definitely a special group of guys in that class."
The Comeback Player of the Year Awards were selected by the 30 MLB.com beat reporters. Previous winners include Jason Giambi and Ken Griffey Jr. (2005), Jim Thome and Nomar Garciaparra (2006), Carlos Pena and Dmitri Young (2007), Cliff Lee and Brad Lidge (2008), Aaron Hill and Carpenter (2009) and Francisco Liriano and Tim Hudson (2010).
The Delivery Man of the Year went to Tigers closer Jose Valverde on Oct. 5, and fans have voted for the Hank Aaron Award, given to each league's outstanding offensive performer. The Aaron Award and the Roberto Clemente Award, presented by Chevrolet, will be revealed in ceremonies during the World Series.