Who’s this Berkman character?

Who in their right mind thought Lance Berkman would be leading the NL in OPS and SLG through the first 30 games of the season? I honestly thought it was a horrible signing for the Cardinals. I thought the 35-year-old had nothing left after watching him at the plate last year, plus I couldn’t imagine his legs being back in the outfield after a couple of years at first base and DH. Turns out, he’s been the best hitter for the Cards. Heck, for the entire NL and may also just be one of the best free agent signings of the year. I would have never of thought that prior to the season.

Berkman enters Friday’s game hitting .392/.462/.775 slash line with 10 home runs and a league-leading 32 RBIs in just 29 games. To put this into perspective, he hit 14 home runs total in 122 games with the Astros and Yankees combined. Even in the homer-friendly Yankee Stadium, he connected for just one longball in 106 at-bat with the Yanks. Overall in 2010, he hit a homer about every 29 at-bats. But this season, he’s belting one dinger about every 10 at-bats. What a difference a year makes.

Obviously, I think Berkman is just more comfortable in the NL, especially in the NL Central where he knows a lot of the pitchers. Not to mention that hitting in the lineup around Albert Pujols doesn’t hurt matters. His home run total last year was the lowest of his career besides his rookie year and he last blasted 20+ home runs in 2009 (25 with Houston), he’s well on his way to eclipsing that total. Of course if he can stay healthy, which is always the question mark for an aging veteran.

Yankees fast start

The Yankees are tearing the cover off the ball so far this season, propelling them to an early one-game lead in the AL East. The offense easily leads the league in home runs with 46 while ranking fourth in runs scored. That’s all fine and dandy, it’s the Yankees and we have come to expect that from them. But at some point this year (playoffs or before during pennant races), the bats will cool off or run into better pitching and will the Yankees be able to rely on pitching?

They are currently getting by with AJ Burnett, who’s having a bounce back year so far, Ivan Nova, Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon. Phil Hughes has been horrendous (13.94 ERA), Nova is posting an ERA above 5.00 and Colon has been a nice story in April, but I don’t see him staying right for the entire season. CC Sabathia has  been solid and he’s their ace no question, but their pitching depth is very thin and they can’t afford a midseason injury or a Hughes type blowup again if they are going to compete in the AL East come September and beyond.

Runs at a premium

I shouldn’t have surprised to find out that two teams are actually scoring fewer runs than the A’s. The A’s are scoring 3.4 runs per game while hitting a slash line of .237/.304/.355. I thought that was bad, but can you name the two teams that are worse? It’s the Twins and the Padres. One playoff team from a year ago and the other a division leader for most of the season before falling behind the Giants yet still winning 90 games.

The Padres are scratching out runs at a 3.34 per game with a .218/.299/.327 slash line, but the Twins take the cake with 3.1 runs per game and a pathetic .230/.292/.323 line. When you are getting on base at a .292 clip, that is awful. With those numbers, it shouldn’t surprise anyone of the Twins 11-18 record and the Padres 12-19 record. The 16-16 A’s are getting by on stellar pitching, something the Padres and Twins (minus Liriano’s no-hitter) lack this season. How bad has it been for the Twins? Liriano’s no-hitter dropped his ERA to a 6.61 mark.

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Don’t look now, but pitchers and catchers report next week! With the start of spring training right around the corner, I thought we’d take a look at some of the prominent free agents who will be changing uniforms this year…

Yankees
The Yankees are having a bit of a rough offseason. They lost out on ace Cliff Lee at the last minute to the Phillies, their longtime steady All-Star pitcher Andy Pettitte decided to retire and then they were raked over the coals by Derek Jeter to sign him to an extension. Meanwhile, the Red Sox went out and brought in a ton of talent mainly Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Bobby Jenks to name a few.

So what did the Yanks do to compensate? Well besides locking up Rivera and Rafael Soriano for their bullpen, they went out and signed Andruw Jones, Bartolo Colon, Mark Prior and now Eric Chavez. These pickups would have been great if the year was 2004 and not 2011. Three of these deals are minor league deals, but wow could they be anymore desperate for starting pitching. If one of the following, Colon-Prior-Chavez, stick I would be shocked.

Rays sign some idiots
The Rays reunited outfielders Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez from their days in Boston, signing them both two one-year deals. Both players are winding down their careers and are not the same players they once were, but it will be interesting to see how their veteran presence will be on a young team that lost Crawford, Garza and Soriano in the offseason. They don’t have the power they used to process as Manny hit nine total compared to Damon’s eight last year. If one of the two can rebound from a mediocre 2010, it’ll pay dividends for Tampa.

Rangers give six years to Beltre
Texas used the money saved for Cliff Lee to pickup Adrian Beltre in a six-year, $96M deal. Didn’t the Rangers learn their lesson on the A-Rod deal that strapped them for years down the road. Beltre had a sterling season last year (.321/.365/.553), there’s no doubt about that. But it was a big improvement from 2009 when he struggled with the Mariners. Plus, Beltre will be 32 in early April, and I’m not so sure giving a 32-year-old with Beltre’s track record a six-year deal is a great idea. Besides the Rangers need pitching, not hitting at this point.

Dunn to White Sox
Adam Dunn signed with the Chi Sox for a four-year, $56MM deal. Dunn’s a player that has hit an average of 40.3 home runs each year since 2004. Now, he moves to an extreme home run hitter’s park in Chicago at the age of 31, Dunn may absolutely rake in the lineup that features Paul Konerko and Carlos Quentin.

Quick hits:

Vlad and Lee sign with the Orioles: Minus the postseason, Vladimir Guerrero had a terrific 2010 season with the Rangers, hitting .300/.345/.496 with 29 home runs. His decline in the postseason is a worry for the O’s, but I think Vlad will at least be productive this year though not to 2010’s standards. As for Derrek Lee, he will be looking for a bounce back year in new scenery in Baltimore after seeing his home run total drop from 35 in 2009 to 19 in 2010, including just three dingers after being dealt to Atlanta in August.

Matsui lands in Oakland: Hideki Matsui ended up being one of the most consistent producers for the Angels last year and should provide some much-needed power and experience for the A’s in 2011. If he stays healthy, 20-25 home runs shouldn’t be a problem.

Cubs land Pena: Along with upgrading their rotation with a trade for Garza, the Cubs signed Pena to a one-year, $10MM deal. Pena will provide some power the Cubs need, but I don’t care how many home runs he hits, he better cut down some strikeouts and improve that .198 average.

Javier Vazquez returns to the NL: Vazquez is coming off probably his worst season in the majors since his rookie year. He posted a 5.32 ERA while his strikeouts decreased and his walks went up with the Yanks. Signing a one-year, $7MM deal with Florida, he hopes to turn some magic back in the NL where he’s been extremely more effective throughout his 13-year career.

Hall of Fame second baseman Rogers Hornsby has a magnificent quote about what to do during wintertime with no baseball.

“People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.” —Rogers Hornsby

Well when the snow’s falling down, there’s no better way to spend the day then looking back to warmer, better days. Today, I’ve decided to reflect on my time in Florida last March for spring training.

A perfect sunsplash day in Bradenton

A friend and I flew down to Florida in mid-March to see a Tigers game in Lakeland (he’s a Tigers fan) and a Pirates-Yankees game in Bradenton. That was the plan anyway. A two-day long downpour of rain washed out the Tigers game the day after we arrived and suddenly we were stuck in a state that was pretty much useless to us for what we had traveled there to see.

Thankfully, the rain ceased on day three and the sun came out just in time for us to enjoy the Pirates-Yankees game. A picture is worth a thousand words, at least that’s how the saying goes. I don’t think I’ll get to a thousand on this post, but maybe 500.

As you can see from the picture, it was a perfect day for baseball in Bradenton at McKechnie Field. C.C. Sabathia took the mound for the Bronx Bombers against Charlie Morton of the Pirates. I don’t recall his exact line that day, but I know Morton pitched well. He definitely fared a lot better than his counterpart as the Pirates hit CC around the park, including a couple bombs out of the park. I remember saying to my friend that afternoon, what a boost it would be for the Pirates rotation if Morton caught on and put together a decent year. Oh, if only we had known where his season was headed (2-12, 7.57). Who would have known that his four shutout innings with one hit allowed that day would be his best outing of the season? Morton picked up the win and Sabathia was handed the loss after the Pirates scored three off of the big guy.

The Pirates offense ruled the day as they looked like Bombers out there more than New York. The Bucs hit five home runs, including two by free agent pickup Bobby Crosby. In 61 games in the regular season, Crosby would only hit one home run yet he hit two on this day. Aki Iwamura homered too, I actually laughed when I looked the boxscore up and saw his name. Delwyn Young hit a long ball as well, though his biggest homer would come later in the summer when he hit the first home run off of Stephen Strasburg in Washington. And yes, the Pirates were led that day by the trio of Morton, Crosby and Aki. Three players that had promising seasons in front of them, but ended up in Triple-A, traded and cut after being sent to the minors, respectively. Wow, only with the Pirates.

The Pirates picked up the victory that afternoon, 10-5, to move to 4-7 overall that spring. As a Pirates fan over the past two decades, a meaningless win over the Yankees in spring training is strange to watch. You have players taking All-Stars like Sabathia deep as other future Hall of Famers like Derek Jeter struggle against a team that you know in your gut will lose more than 100 games in the upcoming season. So you take the game in as only you can, by savoring the moment like it’s Game 7 of the World Series and acting like an obnoxious fan throughout the game. Hey, sometimes spring training and a single game in the middle of 162 is all we have as a Pirates fan these days.

I plan on booking my trip to spring training soon for more games this March to see how the Pirates are looking heading into the 2011 season. Here’s hoping the rain holds off this year for the duration of my short trip. I cannot wait to fly south and feel the warm sun on my skin and hear the crack of the bat again. Caught Looking’s picture series reflecting on the 2010 season will continue next week with a look at Opening Day. And according to this post, a picture is worth 720+ words.

ALCS Game 6: Rangers 6, Yankees 1 (Rangers win series 4-games-2)
Forget about wondering if the Yankees could actually beat Cliff Lee in Game 7 because they won’t get the chance after they couldn’t handle Colby Lewis. Lewis fired a gem to lead the Rangers to a 6-1 victory to earn a World Series ticket for the first time in franchise history.

The Rangers not only eliminated the Yankees, but eliminated the past troubles and playoff losses to New York with a 6-1 clinching game in front of their home fans. Lewis baffled Yankees hitters all night, allowing just three hits, one run in 8.0 innings of work with eight strikeouts. Not only was it Lewis’ second win of the series, but it may have been his best performance of his life.

Texas broke a 1-1 game wide open with a four-spot in the bottom of the fifth inning. Vladimir Guerrero ripped a two-RBI double to break the tie and Nelson Cruz followed it up with a two-run homer to provide Texas with a “we’ve made it moment” with the hysterical crowd at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. Yankees starter Phil Hughes was hit around for the second time in the series, allowing four runs, four hits, four walks in an ineffective 4.2 innings.

Ian Kinsler added an RBI-sac fly later in the game to make it 6-1, but the rest was about Lewis performance against a lineup that produced 859 runs in the regular season. Closer Neftali Feliz came in for the ninth and struck out two in the inning, including a strikeout looking of Alex Rodriguez to end the game. It was fitting that the former Ranger would make the final out, but how in the world does A-Rod take that 0-2 pitch from Feliz? Terrible.

Texas will await the winner of the NLCS as it prepares for the first World Series appearance in team history.

ALCS Game 5: Yankees 7, Rangers 2
C.C. Sabathia halted the Rangers from celebrating in Yankee Stadium as he held the Rangers offense in check as the Yankees survived for at least another day, winning Game 5 by the score of 7-2.

Sabathia wasn’t particularly sharp as he scattered 11 hits over 6.o innings of work, but only allowed two runs while walking zero and striking out seven. Kerry Wood and Mariano Rivera combined for a scoreless three innings to send the series back to Texas for Game 6. The Yankees bats used the home run ball in this one to lead the way as Nick Swisher and Robinson Cano led off the bottom of the third with back-to-back home runs off Texas starter CJ Wilson. Curtis Granderson added his first jack of the postseason and finished 3-for-4 with a HR, double and two RBI on the night.

Just like the regular season, Cano has been a beast this postseason and Girardi finally decided to move him up in the order to the three hole. Even though the only reason he finally made the move was due to Teixeira’s injury that has him sidelined for the remainder of the playoffs. Cano is hitting .387 with four home runs in the postseason, with all the homers coming in the ALCS.

Backup catcher Mike Treanor provided the only two runs for Texas in this game with a solo home run in the fifth inning and an RBI groundout in the sixth. With the 13 hits they came up with in the game, they left eight on base including six in scoring position. Texas out-hit the Yankees 13-9 despite only scoring two runs.

The teams have today off and will travel to Texas for Game 6 Friday night where Phil Hughes head to the mound against Rangers starter Colby Lewis.

NLCS Game 4: Giants 6, Phillies 5
This back-and-forth affair ended with Juan Uribe‘s game-winning sacrifice fly to score Aubrey Huff in the bottom of the ninth to give the Giants a 3-games-to-1 series lead on Philadelphia. The game saw four lead changes and ended up with Phillies starter Roy Oswalt on the mound after both starters failed to go at least 5.0 innings.

Buster Posey had a big night with four hits, two doubles and two runs batted in and a great tag to nail Carlos Ruiz at the plate in the fifth inning. Posey’s now hitting .344 in his first postseason.

Though the big hit of the game for San Fran came in the bottom of the sixth after the Phillies had taken a 4-3 lead, Pablo Sandoval ripped a double to center field that scored Burrell and Ross to give the Giants the lead. The Phillies tied it in the eighth inning after two back-to-back doubles by Ryan Howard and Jayson Werth, but it just set the stage for the G-men in the ninth. With one out and Oswalt pitching, Huff singled and Posey followed with a single, moving Huff to third. Uribe came up and ripped a 1-2 pitch into left field for the game-winning sac fly.

The Phillies face elimination tonight in San Francisco as it’s a rematch of the most hyped pitching matchup in a long time of Roy Halladay against Tim Lincecum. Lincecum won the first one and the Phillies not only need this game, but will be pitching Halladay until his arm falls off with the way their bullpen took a hit last night.

NLCS Game 3: Giants 3, Phillies 0
The pitching performances this postseason has been something to watch. To quote a McDonald’s slogan—I’m lovin’ it. The Giants returned home to AT&T Park and greeted the fans with a three-hit shutout of the Phillies to take control of the series 2-games-to-1.

Matt Cain, one of the most underrated pitchers in the game, started for the Giants and mowed down the Phils for two hits and three walks through 7.0 innings of work. He struck out five batters, allowed no runs and picked up the victory. Javier Lopez pitched a scoreless eighth inning and closer Brian Wilson shut the door on Philadelphia in the ninth. The Phillies offense only had three hits…three measly singles.

The Giants offense only mustered five hits against Cole Hamels, but it was enough to scratch three runs out. Cody Ross and Aubrey Huff had back-to-back RBI singles in the fourth inning and Aaron Rowand scored in the sixth on a Chase Utley error to make it 3-0. Hamels struck out six batters, but only went 6.0 innings and allowed three runs on five hits.

Tonight, the Giants will turn to their rookie starter Madison Bumgarner against the Phillies Joe Blanton, who’s making his first start in the playoffs as his only appearance this year was 1.0 inning of work against Atlanta where he allowed two runs. This could be a huge game for Bumgarner and the Giants to go up 3-1 in the series with Roy Halladay scheduled to pitch against Lincecum in Game 5 before possibly returning to Philadelphia for Game 6 and 7.

ALCS Game 4: Rangers 10, Yankees 3
This is pretty much what I expected from an AJ Burnett start in the postseason. Burnett has not been a very good pitcher this year, and he showed it again Tuesday night as he was hit around for five runs as the Rangers eventually won the game 10-3 to move within one game of their first World Series berth ever.

The Rangers broke out the long ball in this one with Josh Hamilton blasting two home runs, Nelson Cruz hitting his fourth of the playoffs and ol’ Bengie Molina hitting a crucial three-run homer to give the Rangers the lead after a questionable intentional walk. With the Yankees leading 3-2 in the top of the sixth inning with one runner and two outs, Joe Girardi elected to intentionally walk David Murphy and let Burnett face Molina. Well, baseball 101 says you never put the go-ahead run on base. I understand where Girardi was going with this one considering Murphy homered off of Burnett in the regular season and Molina is 1-for-5 against Burnett, but sometimes you shouldn’t pull a Jim Leyland and over manage. For whatever reason, Molina has just been the hotter hitter in the playoffs so far. He hurt the Rays in the ALDS and last night, he hurt the Yankees by belting a three-run homer off Burnett to give the Rangers the lead in which they never looked back.

After Molina’s homer, the Rangers added two runs in the next inning and three runs in the ninth inning to put the game away. Rangers starter Tommy Hunter was not effective either as he only lasted 3.1 innings after allowing three runs and two home runs to Robinson Cano and Lance Berkman. Derek Holland ended up picking the win with 3.2 scoreless innings of relief.

The Rangers have outscored the Yankees 30-11 in the series through four games as their offense continues to pound Yankees pitching, especially late in the games. The Yankees will turn to their ace CC Sabathia to face CJ Wilson in a rematch of Game 1 in a win or go home situation today at 4 p.m.

Here’s hoping Wilson out duels Sabathia again and the Rangers hold on for the victory this time to send New Yorkers home dejected .

ALCS Game 3: Rangers 8, Yankees 0
Cliff Lee is pitching on a completely different planet right now from the rest of the league. Lee mowed down the Yankees Monday night to lead the Rangers to an 8-0 win at Yankee Stadium to take a two games to one lead in the ALCS. By not acquiring Lee at the trading deadline, the Yankees are up against their worst nightmare of facing Lee giving him the opportunity to knock them out.

Lee fired another brilliant performance, this time against a loaded Yankees lineup. He blanked the Yanks for 8.0 innings of work, allowing just two hits, one walk and a stellar 13 strikeouts for his third win of the 2010 playoffs. Jorge Posada and Brett Gardner recorded the only hits, both singles, off of Lee on the night. The Yankees are lucky that the schedule sets up for them to only face Lee twice this series…and that still may be too much for NY to overcome.

Texas took a lead before Lee even stepped onto the mound as Josh Hamilton delivered a two-run homer to right field off Andy Pettitte in the top of the first inning. The score remained 2-0 until the ninth when the Rangers broke out for six runs against the New York bullpen. Nelson Cruz and Bengie Molina each had RBI singles, Mitch Moreland drove in two runs on his single, Elvis Andrus doubled in a run and Moreland scored on a wild pitch to finish the scoring. Pettitte finished the game with a strong 7.0 innings with two runs allowed on five hits in the losing effort.

There’s not much time for the Yankees to dwell on this one as Game 4 takes place Tuesday night as they turn to AJ Burnett (scheduled starter) to attempt to tie the series.

NLCS Game 2: Phillies 6, Giants 1
The Phillies responded in Game 2 with a 6-1 victory over the Giants to tie the NLCS at one game apiece. Roy Oswalt was brilliant for Philly, limiting the G-men to one run through 8.0 innings of work with nine strikeouts.

With the Phillies leading 2-1, they broke the game wide open in the bottom of the seventh with a four-run inning. Jimmy Rollins led the way with two hits and four RBI, three of which came off a bases-clearing double in the seventh. Placido Polanco drove in two runs as well.

For San Francisco, Cody Ross was pretty much the entire offense again as he hit his third home run of the series, a solo shot to tie the game at 1-1 in the fifth. Giants starter Jonathan Sanchez was effective, but did not match Oswalt’s performance Sunday night as he went 6.0 innings with three runs allowed (two earned) on three walks and seven strikeouts.

The series shifts out west to the Bay Area this afternoon with Cole Hamels against Matt Cain in Game 3.