Big Train a Comin': Astros at Cardinals

Lance Berkman, the Houston Astros' burly first baseman, has shouldered his club and carried them into National League Central contention.

Two of general manager Ed Wade's prized recruits, shortstop Miguel Tejada and closer Jose Valverde, are paying early dividends for his Houston team. But it is the superhuman exploits of a man he inherited that has lifted his Astros above .500, and into the early conversation about the best teams in the NL Central.

Wade is known as a trader, a man unafraid to quickly change the complexion of his team if needed. If he was given a mandate to shake the team up, he more than complied through a series of deals that were chronicled in the last series preview. However, there were a few stalwart players that he might have deemed untouchable – starting ace Roy Oswalt, slugging left fielder Carlos Lee, prized youngster Hunter Pence, and the big lumberjack at first base, Lance Berkman.

As this series opens, the standings find Houston just a game and a half out of first place, with the Cardinals wedged in between the Astros and the division-leading Cubs. Just weeks ago, however, the Astros were in last place in the Central, and several of these keystone players were in slumps.

The slender workhorse Roy Oswalt has been struggling all season to capture the form that had made him one of the league's feared aces. He now carries a rather pedestrian 4-4 record with a gloomy ERA that has risen well into the 5s, and a strikeout rate that is his least dominant to date. Wandy Rodriguez had emerged as the team's #2 pitcher, especially with his ability to shut down opponents in his home ballpark – no easy task, given the stadium's cozy dimensions. However, Rodriguez had been shut down due to arm fatigue, leaving an undermanned trio of pitchers to muddle their way along.

The rehabilitated (Brandon Backe), the reclaimed (Shawn Chacon), and the soon to be recalled (young Chris Sampson) have combined to win a mere five of the 27 games they've started, though this is not fully indicative of their pitching success. Each man's task has been simply to keep the games close, and allow their big boppers the chance to come up with late-inning heroics. It is the bullpen of this team, a unit that has been completely plowed under and replanted since the end of last season that has reaped the benefits in the W/L column.

After a very rocky start, in which he blew three of his first seven save opportunities and lost another game which was tied at his entrance, Valverde has suddenly nailed down eight consecutive for a share of the National League lead.

The late-inning heroics have largely come from the hands of the lineup's big three, centered on their franchise player at first base.

One might have looked at Berkman, now entering his early thirties, and planned a slow but steady career decline after his mostly underwhelming 2007. First his legs would start to buckle, sapping his prodigious power. In turn, his famously judicious batting eye would suffer, in attempt to reach pitches to drive. Over the course of several years, his strikeout rate would increase, his defense would suffer, and his famous jollility would deteriorate as he faced innumerable questions about his lost form. He would hardly be baseball's first big man to follow such a path.

However, Berkman clearly had other plans in mind. His legs have been fresh and his feet nimble, as the man-cub has bowled his way to eight stolen bases already on the season. Additionally, his defense at first base has been spotless. At this rate, the big gentleman looks to be an early favorite in next season's Dancing with the Stars.

His footwork is just the start of the story. While Tejada is batting a tidy .345 with 18 extra-base hits and Lee is hitting a respectable .281 with nine round-trippers in support, Berkman has overshadowed both with his performance. On the season, he is hitting nearly .400, with on-base percentage of nearly .500, and slugging nearly .800. In May he has quite simply been a force of nature at the plate, putting up numbers rarely seen outside of a video game.

Also helping the cause has been the return of another of Wade's acquisitions, second-baseman Kaz Matsui. In his last full season of games, Matsui has finally begun to showcase his talents on this side of the Pacific. His name was abuzz going back several years, when Hideki Matsui (the "Godzilla" of the Yomiuri Giants) was imported by the Yankees. At the time, some watchers of the Japanese League opined that the younger, smaller Matsui would find greater success in the US, if given the chance. His combination of speed and line-drive ability would translate better across the divide than the elder Matsui's power, they predicted. However, while Godzilla thrived under the Yankee Stadium lights, Kaz wilted in the neighboring borough of Queens.

Dumped by the Mets and finding a job with the Rockies only after toiling in Colorado's minor leagues, Matsui paid his dues like any other prospect, despite his successes overseas. In another potentially high-pressure situation, Matsui has taken over the position of retired icon Craig Biggio, and is batting leadoff for a veteran-filled team in "win now" mode.

With the monsters between Matsui and the resurgent bat of Hunter Pence, the trip through the first six spots in Houston's lineup can be more than adventurous for any opposing pitcher. St. Louis' surprisingly effective starters must choose their paths carefully in this upcoming series.

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