ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Take it from his peers, the old Lance Berkman is back.
Milwaukee Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy marveled at the keen eye and discipline to hold off on pitches far too close to take. While enjoying a career rebirth at age 35, the third big bat in the St. Louis Cardinals' deep lineup doesn't need bifocals yet.
A glance at the Top 10 is a blast from the past. After a day off Thursday, Berkman was tied for first in RBIs, second in homers and third in batting average.
"I told the umpire behind the plate, 'Man, that guy, he's really locked in because he's taking borderline strikes like they're nothing,"' Lucroy said. "When you're locked in like that, you see them coming."
Marlins manager Edwin Rodriguez said it was tough enough dealing with Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday.
"That middle of the lineup," Rodriguez, "I can't think of any other lineup that has guys like that."
Coming off his worst year, Berkman entered free agency with a snub. The Houston Astros, his team for a dozen years before Berkman went to the Yankees at the trade deadline last year, had zero interest.
"I think it's well-documented," Berkman said. "They said 'Take a hike.' It was a short conversation."
Berkman's first trip back to Houston was mostly positive, although there was a smattering of boos before each at-bat and fans wielded dueling signs, one welcoming and the other spurning. Berkman also had a bit of a confrontation with longtime Astros broadcaster Milo Hamilton, who had accused Berkman of not being in shape last season.
"That I didn't really do my rehab or insinuated that I didn't really do it, that's what he said," Berkman said. "It wasn't true. He didn't exactly apologize but he definitely came up and said really that he just wanted to clear the air.
"I'm not the kind of guy to worry too much about that."
After the Astros said no last winter, Berkman wasted little time signing with St. Louis.
"I actually called them and said, 'Do y'all want me?' Berkman said. "There's not another two or three teams I would even consider playing for, and this was the first place I wanted to come."
Then he started dialing back the clock, taking a regular outfield spot for the first time since 2004 in addition to rediscovering his stroke as the hammer in the Cardinals' fifth slot.
Berkman is batting .357 average with 10 homers and 32 RBIs, and a .444 on-base percentage was every bit as impressive. Twice he's been player of the week.
"What can you say? He's on fire right now," Marlins third baseman Greg Dobbs said. "Maybe next time we see him, he won't be."
Actually, Berkman has cooled off lately. Yet he's compensated for a 1-for-16 tailspin the last week that dropped his average below .400 by drawing eight walks.
The lone hit during the slump was a three-run homer batting right-handed, his weaker side from a power standpoint.
"I'm just going up there and trying to have good at-bats," Berkman said. "It's been a good run."
The additions of Berkman and shortstop Ryan Theriot indicate the Cardinals' willingness to trade defense for offense. They'll be happy if Berkman makes the routine plays and hits the cutoff man, and manager Tony La Russa loves Theriot's gritty approach and knack for participating in rallies and will live with reduced range.
General manager John Mozeliak said that "wasn't necessarily" how he approached the offseason after the Cardinals missed the postseason for the third time in four years.
"We certainly put an emphasis on improving our offense," Mozeliak said. "To get the performance and production out of him is outstanding."
The big start prompts discussion that Berkman could be the Cardinals' first baseman next year. Pujols will be a free agent for the first time in his career after rejecting a multiyear deal that included a percentage of ownership at the start of free agency, and the Cardinals have a second challenge to a top-heavy payroll with pitcher Chris Carpenter also due for free agency.
While rehabbing from a left knee injury that led to career lows in average (.248), homers (14) and RBIs (58) with the Astros and Yankees, Berkman shed about 20 pounds and worked with a personal trainer. La Russa said he wanted Berkman before he learned any of that.
"He's a great fit," La Russa said. "I don't think it's that tough to show confidence in him."
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)