Are you ready for the return of Puma?
The Astros meet the Cardinals for the first time this year on Tuesday night and there should be plenty of anticipation in the air because of the return of Lance Berkman.
Berkman, one of the Astros’ five greatest offensive players, was traded to the Yankees last July and signed a one-year, $8 million contract with the Cardinals in the winter after the Astros told him they weren’t interested in bringing him back.
Berkman, who is hitting .377 with six homers and 15 RBIs with a 1.173 OPS, spoke to MLB.com on Sunday about his return to the ballpark he called home for more than a decade.
“I’m not crazy about going back in there,” he said. “I feel like I’ve kind of turned the page, and part of me just wants to be done with it. But I know I’m going to have to go back in there and face a lot of questions and things like that.
“But it boils down to it’s still just a baseball game. Now that I’m on the other side, you’ve got to try to win and do the best you can for the team you’re playing for.”
Much has been made of Berkman reporting to the Cardinals in terrific shape and has prompted Astros fans to wonder if he worked harder this offseason than he did in his last couple of years with the Astros when his numbers declined.
We know that Berkman couldn’t get over the injury hump last year, beginning when he injured his knee in the spring and wound up starting the season on the disabled list following surgery.
“I just feel healthier than I have in a while,” Berkman said. “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.”
Berkman didn’t venture a guess on what kind of reception he’d get from the fans, but it should be overwhelmingly positive. He was the offensive anchors of two of the greatest teams in Astros history and was always a good influence anywhere he went in Houston, where he still lives.
“I’m not going to put too much emphasis or stock on this series,” he said. “We go back in there twice more, and they’re games that we need to win. We need to play well. I’m trying to look at it from, it’s not about me going back in there, it’s about we’re going in there to play them.
“Clearly you can see that this is going to be a competitive division, so all these games are important and you’ve got to try to win as many as you can.”
And coming home knowing he’s playing well only helps, Berkman says.
“You just don’t want them to be able to say, ‘Well, we were right to get rid of him,’” he said. “So that’s the only thing from that standpoint. It will be nice to walk in there and feel like I’m swinging the bat pretty well.”
When asked about his best memory with the Astros, Berkman didn’t single out any particular play or home run.
“I think more than anything else, it’s the teammates I’ve had over the years that I’ve really enjoyed,” he 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. It’s a totally different environment. It’s a totally different atmosphere from when I was there for most of my career.
“Those are the things that I remember fondly. I miss those people, not necessarily the place, although the place does have a lot of good memories for me.”