At this time last season, Astros' first baseman Lance Berkman left many wondering if he could continue at his torrid pace when he led the NL Triple Crown categories heading into the All-Star break.
In what has turned out to be a tale of two seasons for Berkman, 2009 has been a struggle. Flirting with the dreaded "Mendoza Line" for the better part of the season, Berkman (a career .300 hitter) has ignited the last ten games improving his average to a respectable .268.
The Astros have battled the Pirates all season in an effort to avoid the NL Central cellar. Suddenly, they find themselves just four games behind the Cardinals for the division lead thanks in large part to their veteran leader.
It is no coincidence the Astros' fortune shifted as Berkman's performance at the plate improved. With "Bubba being Bubba" the Astros are close to doing what was unthinkable just a few weeks ago—contend for the NL Central title. They are a "hot hitting" Carlos Lee away from having one of the most potent offenses in the National League outside of the Dodgers.
The Astros and Berkman's season turned on June 25 during an interleague game with the Kansas City Royals. The burley slugger was hitting at a .230 clip at the time the Astros defeated the Royals 5-4. Berkman went 3-for-4 with two homeruns and four RBI's and carried the team to victory as he had done so often in 2008.
Since, the Astros have won six of nine games heading into the All-Star break and are now considered buyers rather than sellers with the July 31st trade deadline looming.
If Berkman can stay hot, there are very few reasons why the Astros should not be mentioned in the same breath as the Brewers, Cards and Cubbies with respect to contending for the division title.