Commentary

Lance Berkman trade finally pays off

The former Astros slugger has struggled as a Yankee, but he broke through in Game 2

Updated: October 8, 2010, 5:21 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- The association between the New York Yankees and Lance Berkman is likely to be a short one, his legacy with the team probably never amounting to more than a footnote.

After all, at this point in his career, he is just one more aging, highly paid designated-hitter type on a roster jam-packed with them -- and as far as his manager is concerned, just a part-time DH at that.

In the space of a couple of days this summer, he went from being an everyday first baseman who hit third in the lineup for the Houston Astros to being a once- or twice-a-week player who only hits, and only when a right-hander is pitching.

It is anything but an ideal marriage -- Berkman dislikes DH-ing and he really hates being platooned, and the Yankees have no intention of picking up his $15 million option for 2011. But so far, both sides have managed to somehow make it work.

[+] EnlargeLance Berkman
AP Photo/Paul BattagliaLance Berkman had by far his best game as a Yankee in Game 2.

Because up until Thursday night at Target Field, Berkman had been that rarest of Yankees players -- one who was worth exactly what they were paying him.

Which was precisely nothing.

Acquiring him as a "take-him-he's-yours'' salary dump by the struggling Astros at the trade deadline, the only investment the Yankees made in Berkman was the time and effort it took to convince him to waive his no-trade clause to leave the only organization he had ever played for and the only state he had ever lived in, and come to New York.

Thursday night, the Yankees' investment in Berkman paid off in ways they never could have foreseen when he was hitting .200 in August, or languishing on the disabled list with a sprained ankle, or going 91 at-bats before hitting a home run.

No, Fat Elvis did not leave the building in pinstripes until Sept. 22, in his 32nd game as a Yankee, while his new team was in the process of getting crushed in an important game at home against the Tampa Bay Rays.

At that point, even at the minimal cost of feeding, clothing and transporting him around the country with the rest of the team, it sure looked as if the Yankees had made the wrong call on Berkman, and vice versa.

"I think you definitely have those thoughts,'' Berkman said. "But now I know in my heart it was definitely the right move.''

Berkman certainly chose an opportune time to hit his second Yankees home run, in the fifth inning of the second game of the ALDS, at the tipping point of a game in which the Yankees were in real danger of not only allowing the Minnesota Twins to tie the series, but of falling victim to their old friend Carl Pavano, who during his Yankees tenure was the exact opposite of Berkman.

Namely, around too long, idle too often, and not worth a nickel of the $39.95 million the Yankees paid him for four years of nonservice.

When Berkman came to the plate with one out in the fifth, the game was tied at 1, but the feeling was that Pavano was getting the best of Andy Pettitte -- Berkman's former Houston teammate and close buddy, who was making just his fourth start since spending two months on the DL.

Berkman nipped that in the bud by scorching one into the bullpen an estimated 419 feet away to give the Yankees a 2-1 lead.

The Yankees would give that lead back an inning later on Orlando Hudson's solo home run. But in the seventh, the Yankees' minimal investment in Berkman began to pay off in multiple dividends.

With the score tied at 2, Pavano's 1-2 fastball buzzed across what appeared to be the middle of home plate. But home plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt, whose strike zone was an object of contention all night, called it ball two.

Pavano became noticeably flustered on the mound. And Berkman socked the next pitch over the head of center fielder Denard Span, knocking in Jorge Posada to give the Yankees a 3-2 lead. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, who went out to talk to Pavano after Berkman's double, wound up getting so worked up at Wendelstedt that he got tossed from the game. The Yankees later tacked on two more runs, and their 5-2 victory now leaves them one win from a sweep and a return to the ALCS. Best of all, they're coming home to do it.

"This has been the worst season of my career,'' said Berkman, who posted career lows in every major category --.248, 14 HRs, 58 RBIs -- since he became an everyday player in 2000. "So it was great to contribute. Even if I have gotten my last Yankee hit ever, I still look back on this and say it was absolutely the right thing to do. I'm very happy I decided to waive my no-trade clause.''

It was at least probably Berkman's last hit of this series; with left-hander Brian Duensing going in Saturday's Game 3 and the Twins likely to bring back ace Francisco Liriano, another lefty, if there is a Game 4 on Sunday, Berkman will resume his place on the bench while Marcus Thames takes over his half of the DH duties.

And Berkman acknowledged that the odds of him returning to the Yankees are virtually nonexistent. "They don't really have a spot for me here,'' he said. "And I don't like the platooning thing at all. I've always played against all kinds of pitching my whole career.''

And then there's the matter of hitting eighth, an indignity that Alex Rodriguez still hasn't gotten over since Joe Torre relegated him to that spot at the bitter end of the 2006 ALDS against Detroit.

"I never hit eighth before,'' Berkman said. "But what am I going to do? I mean, it makes you feel better when you have A-Rod and Teixeira, Cano and Granderson hitting in front of you. I mean, I don't expect to hit in front of any of those guys. I'm just glad to be in this lineup.''

For however long that lasts. Berkman's heart remains back home in Houston -- his wife and kids still live there, while he has been bunking with the Pettittes at their home in Westchester. But for now, his body remains the property of the New York Yankees.

"I love New York City and I like being a part of this whole thing,'' he said. "This has been a great experience for me all around.''

For perhaps the first time in their brief association, the Yankees can say the feeling is mutual.

GAME NOTES: Yankees general manager Brian Cashman may have had the best night of any Yankee on Thursday. Not only did Berkman deliver, but another of his trade-deadline acquisitions, Kerry Wood, pitched another shutdown eighth inning, including two strikeouts. And Curtis Granderson, his big-ticket offseason pickup, continued his hot hitting since his celebrated "swing makeover'' with hitting coach Kevin Long, going 3-for-4 including an RBI single. ... Pavano, too, has become quite a useful pitcher to the Yankees, playing second-best for the second year in a row; he also pitched just well enough to lose Game 3 at the Metrodome to complete the Yankees' ALDS sweep in 2009. ... One night after posting a 23-pitch, four-out save in Game 1, Mariano Rivera needed 13 pitches to set the Twinkies down in Game 2, allowing a leadoff single to Joe Mauer and promptly erasing him on a double play. ... The Yankees will have a workout at Yankee Stadium Friday afternoon in preparation for Game 3. Phil Hughes faces Duensing in an 8:37 p.m. start on Saturday.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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