Mailbag: How will Berkman start off?

Mailbag: How will Berkman start off?

Am I the only one worried that Lance Berkman's injury could cause yet another slow start for him? Recent comments indicated this happens every year. Coincidentally, so do his slow starts. I love Lance as a player, but this is annoying, and when he is hitting .235 in early June I won't be feeling the love. Your thoughts?
-- Scott K., Mokena, Ill.

I'm glad you asked, because I think we need to clear up a few things from the last mailbag. I wasn't entirely fair with my answer to a similar question. Berkman has been labeled as a slow starter when he actually has had very few slow starts in his seven full Major League seasons. Yes, he underperformed last year in April and May, hitting .253 and .237 respectively. But in his career, Berkman has a .282 average in April, .297 in May and .311 in June. He has made four All-Star appearances, which means he's had at least four "fast starts" in seven years.

Like most players, Berkman works out every day after the first of the year. He does not know exactly why he keeps straining the same area of his side, but it's not from lack of conditioning. I talked to him about it and he explained that you can practice all you want, but until you actually step it up to game speed, it's hard to simulate it in the offseason. No one is throwing live to you, and while you can hit off a tee and stretch until you're blue in the face, until you actually turn it up a notch when you get to Spring Training, it's difficult to truly take many preventative measures.

I know we talk a lot about Berkman's work ethic, and he brings some of it on himself by joking about milking injuries to try to get out of working during Spring Training. But he does work hard, and hitting coach Sean Berry said Sunday that Berkman has been taking a lot of extra swings in the cages this year with hopes he will not have the same start to this season as he did in 2007.

Monday provided an early sign that Berkman's extra work is paying off. He went 3-for-4 against the Blue Jays, needing just a single to complete a Spring Training cycle. Would it not make more sense for Brad Ausmus to be the catcher for Woody Williams instead of Wandy Rodriguez? In previous years, Ausmus never caught for Wandy, and if Wandy is really one of the Astros' pitchers of the future, shouldn't he be paired with the Astros' catcher of the future, J.R. Towles?
-- Max W., Houston

I have a feeling Towles is going to catch everyone and Ausmus will catch once or twice a week without being paired exclusively with one pitcher. That appears to be the way Cecil Cooper is leaning. He was originally thinking about pairing Ausmus and Rodriguez, but I sense he might change his philosophy. Towles, assuming he stays healthy, is going to need to work with everyone, and while several pitchers probably would like to pitch to Ausmus simply because that's who they're comfortable with, it's Cooper's call.

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I personally believe the Astros have what it takes to win. I also believe their rotation is underrated. But I still don't understand why their pitchers keep getting tagged and keep losing this spring. They've only scored more than 10 runs once this Spring Training. Aren't they supposed to be averaging seven or eight? Is it because of all the non-roster invitees? Are they affecting the outcomes of the games?
-- Alex R., Hong Kong

Scoring runs hasn't been the problem. It's the pitching that's worrisome. Through their first 11 games this spring, the Astros are averaging over 6 1/2 runs scored per game. That's plenty. Opponents are averaging 7 1/2 runs per game against Astros pitchers. That's pretty high.

That said, final scores of spring games aren't as important as individual performances. For example, let's say the Astros play a game where most of the projected Opening Day lineup plays for five innings and Roy Oswalt starts and throws four innings and the Astros are ahead, 5-0. Then, everyone comes out of the game and the backups and Minor Leaguers finish out the game, during which time the opponent scores nine runs and the Astros lose, 9-5. Was that a bad game? Not necessarily, because the players expected to be on the team this year performed well. Not that the Astros want their young players and non-roster invitees not to do well, but the main thing is making sure the projected 25-man roster is ready to go. I would say the lineup is in great shape. The pitching has some work to do, however. The bullpen is supposed to be a strength of this team but quite frankly, so far, I'm not impressed.

Does Runelvys Hernandez have a good chance of making a comeback to the Majors? How is he doing for the Astros?
-- Sandra G., Orlando, Fla.

He's doing OK, but not great. The non-roster invites who are trying out for starting pitching jobs are in an uphill battle considering so few spots, if any, are open. Let's put it this way -- if there isn't room for Chris Sampson, who had a pretty good year last year and would probably do a fine job as a starter, there isn't going to be room for someone who hasn't done anything special for quite some time.

I think Hunter Pence needs a nickname. May I suggest Crash?
-- Justin B., Houston

Not a bad idea, except the nickname carries Minor League connotations because of Kevin Costner's character, Crash Davis, in Bull Durham. Davis was a career Minor Leaguer who spent just a few weeks in "The Show." So while "Crash" is appropriate for Pence in some ways, considering he crashed through a sliding glass door upon his arrival to Kissimmee, I don't think that name's going to stick.

Back in 1996 and '97, the Astros had a backup catcher named Randy Knorr, whom everyone called Crash. He was also a career Minor Leaguer, for the most part, but he had about 200 big league games under his belt. One day, a reporter said to an Astros player, "He's paid his dues. Isn't it disrespectful to still be calling him Crash?" The player explained, "It's not because of Bull Durham. He just looks like a crash test dummy."

Skipping ahead 160-something games, what are the odds the Astros enter the C.C. Sabathia sweepstakes at the end of the season?
-- John B., Baton Rouge, La.

If the Indians aren't going to be able to pony up the cash for Sabathia, it's hard to imagine the Astros will. I sense if anyone outbids Cleveland it'll be one of the big-market clubs with unlimited funds. As usual.

Alyson Footer is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.