Major League Baseball announced Thursday that St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Lance Berkman is the recipient of the 2011 National League Comeback Player of the Year Award. Ironically, the 35-year-old suffered a bruised right leg in Wednesday’s NLCS Game 3 and may not be able to play Thursday.
Berkman compiled his first 30-home run season since 2007 after hitting just 14 in 2010. The 2011 NL all-star ranked among League leaders in home runs (31, tied for ninth), RBI (94, tied for 11th), walks (92, fourth), slugging (.547, fifth) and on-base percentage (.412, third). After a very sluggish spring training, he got out of the blocks quickly, twice being named the National League Player of the Week in April.
In 2011, Berkman played in 145 games, his most since playing 159 in 2008. He started 107 games in
right field, 16 in left and made 16 starts at first base, 10 of which occurred when Albert Pujols was on the disabled list.
Berkman especially punished his long-time Houston Astros club. On April 28, he went 4-for-5 with two home runs (both sides of plate), driving in five runs at Minute Maid Park. Berkman homered in all three games in the June 7-9 series in Houston. Overall, he was 12-for-28 (.429) with five home runs against his former team.
The switch-hitter signed for $8 million in 2011 and will return to the Cardinals in 2012 on a one-year, $12 million contract announced on September 22.
Boston’s Jacoby Ellsbury won the corresponding American League Comeback Player of the Year Award.
Other past Cardinals winners include Matt Morris (2001) and Chris Carpenter (2004 and 2009).
Berkman’s interview comments
Q. Lance, most guys don't dream about winning the Comeback of the Year Award, but obviously you have to have some level of satisfaction. What are your thoughts about the Award?
LANCE BERKMAN: Like you say, it's not something that you ever set out to win, 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.
Q. We talked briefly in the off season, you were confident that you would come back and you were maybe not joking but saying, hey, I'm only 35. I feel like I've got a lot of years left. Does this kind of cement your thoughts on that?
LANCE BERKMAN: I felt like, and it happens whenever you get to be in your middle 30s and it can even happen before that. But doesn't take long for people to move on to the next page, so to speak, in the game, and say, well, he's lost it, or you're never heard from again. You see it happen all the time.
That's not something that you know, I wasn't like thinking, well, that I had to come back and prove people wrong. That wasn't my attitude at all. I know that that's part of the business and especially when you get to be a little older, that kind of speculation happens all the time.
Q. You talked a little about this earlier in the season, a couple of different times about what it meant to you to prove to yourself. Could you just reiterate when it was in the season that you kind of said, yeah, okay, I am back?
LANCE BERKMAN: It was really last year during the post season. I felt great in the ALCS last year swinging the bat and kind of really felt and I had a good game against the Twins in the DS. So that playoff experience last year was kind of what set me off in the off season feeling like, all right, I can get back to swing the bat like I know I can.
Q. The numbers you put up, 31 home runs, obviously I don't know if you do set personal goals for yourself or what, but were these numbers realistic for you coming into the season? I know you said you were confident, but did you even exceed what you thought was possible this year?
LANCE BERKMAN: I felt like that I could hit 30 homers if I was healthy, and you know, the problem is, this ballpark is not conducive to home runs. I think any time you get to 30 here, you feel pretty good about yourself.
Q. Also, you played right field this year. Does that make the Award even more special perhaps in the sense that it's a position you haven't played regularly for a number of years; plus, you were able to stay healthy while playing it, as well.
LANCE BERKMAN: Yeah, both of those things were concerns, I guess, that people had when I first signed. But for me, I mean, I spent the majority of my career as an outfielder and I've almost never been hurt. So it's one of those things, I think a DL stint for a calf pull for two weeks, and I've had a couple knee surgeries that have made me start the season on the shelf, but in general, if I started the season healthy, I haven't had any issues.
So neither of those things in my mind were a big deal, even though a lot of people were making a big deal out of them. 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.
Q. You're not in the lineup tonight obviously, but how are you feeling at the plate right now? I know this is probably the most swings you've taken in a couple of years probably because of the injury. How are you feeling physically now and how are you feeling at the plate at this point?
LANCE BERKMAN: I feel good. I feel like I'm seeing the ball well. Yeah, it's one of those things that the post season, it's a short series, and you know, we have had two starts against Roy Halladay. We had Cole Hamels, you've got Cliff Lee, and then you've got these guys from the Brewers. So anything can happen. You add two or three hits in, and the numbers look a lot better.
That's one thing I don't like about the post season is you get judged on such a small sample where, you know, you get a couple balls to fall in here or there and it's a different story. People are writing different things.
But as far as the way I feel at the plate, I feel just fine.
Q. You played it safe in right field on that short hop. During the regular season, would you have done the same thing?
LANCE BERKMAN: Probably. I think one of the things that you learn as you get older, it's much better to keep the guy at first base and give your pitcher a chance to get a double play.
You know, if you allow a guy to get especially leading off an inning, you really want to keep the guy at first base, because that's how you get into some trouble. If you let him get into scoring position early in the inning where he can get to third with less than two outs, it's a lot easier for them to score a run. Especially with a guy like Carp on the mound, you don't want to compound the problem. Just give him the single, get a ground ball and most of the time it works out good.
Q. You talked about how difficult a matchup Marcum is, just his style what he does with the changeup. Is Wolf similar in that regard where matchup is difficult? Can you compare and contrast?
LANCE BERKMAN: Well, I don't do very good against either one of them. But yeah, they are both very good at pitching. I mean, there's guys that have great stuff, and they get away with mistakes but those two guys, they are great pitchers, and they know what they are doing, they know how to change speeds and eye levels, and they just keep you off balance. Randy's (Wolf) got a real sneaky fastball and a good complement of off speed stuff, and he's smart as a whip, so you have to be on your game when you're facing him. And I haven't ever had very good success off of him.
On top of that we have a guy, Allen Craig, who could be hitting fourth for a lot of people. He would be hitting fourth in about three quarters of the lineups in the Major Leagues. He just happens to be on our team, so I think it's a good opportunity for him to get to swing the bat a little bit, too.
Q. You kind of alluded to it yesterday when Kotsay got the start because of his numbers against Carpenter and a lot of the matchups have just been present here in the playoffs. How many at bats is enough to really know how you are against a hitter? You describe how in a Division Series you have only a few at bats to judge how well you're hitting it, and a lot of these are similar with only 12, 13, 16 at bats against an individual pitcher.
LANCE BERKMAN: I think you can I think off of an individual pitcher, once you get 15 at bats, you probably have a decent idea about and even if the numbers are not don't tell the whole story, at least personally, you know how you feel when you go up there, like whether you feel like I can see the ball fine, and I've lined out eight times, and I haven't gotten any; or, if it's, man, I've got no chance and I've really struggled, this guy, he's just got my number or whatever. You can tell that as a hitter pretty quickly; I would say as many as 10 at bats, or as few as 10 at bats I should say.
Certainly I think when you compile 15 or 20 at bats against a guy, you can have a decent idea. And again, none of this is hard and fast. I mean, heck, if I had started tonight, I might have gotten three hits. You just don't know.
But, being a game of percentages and playing percentages, I think that I mean, I have 30 at bats against Wolf, so I think that's plenty to figure out that I don't hit him very well at all.
Q. You've been with some different teams, you seemed to get comfortable here very fast. Did you feel that that would happen, and why do you think it happened?
LANCE BERKMAN: Well, I definitely felt like that I would be comfortable here, and the main reason is just the familiarity that I have with the organization from competing against them for a lot of years and knowing these guys.
I'm friends with Adam Wainwright and competed against Carp and Albert, and Matt's a great guy and Skip Schumaker. Just the fit seemed perfect for me, just knowing those guys and coming over here, everything I thought it would be. I felt like I fit in pretty quickly.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog. Look for his weekly minor league column on Thursdays at FOXSportsMidwest.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.
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