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Out of the Park

The Houston Press discusses our national pastime with Lance Berkman.

It seems longer than three and a half years ago that Astros fans flooded downtown to celebrate the club's first National League pennant. Since then, the team has spent plenty but failed to develop a foundation of solid young players. Even when the club made late runs at the playoffs in 2006 and 2008, it felt a bit like the 'stros were the nouveau riche at the country club, waiting to be exposed.

But hoping for the unlikely is half the fun. Even if the team is looking up at .500 halfway through the season, the ballpark remains a great place to spend a summer evening. Bring your kids, your friends or a date and allow yourself to engage in a little wishful thinking. That may not be a wise approach when judging whether to ford a flooded underpass, but when it comes to Astros baseball, hope has become a way of life. If you're not feeling optimistic, there's no reason you can't ignore the standings and let yourself get lost in a ballgame for a few hours.

And when it comes to predictions, we thought it'd be a good idea to get an assessment from a veteran. We sat down with first baseman Lance Berkman to get his thoughts on how the 2009 campaign will unfold.

Lance Berkman
Aaron M. Sprecher
Lance Berkman

Houston Press: Who do you think might break out this season?

Lance Berkman: (Outfielder) Hunter Pence is a guy who's a young player and I think he's got a world of ability. I don't know if you'd call it a breakout because he had a pretty good year last year, but I'd look for him to continue to improve...(Starting pitcher Felipe) Paulino has always had a good arm — last year he was hurt — but he's really a boon for us because coming into the season he's not a guy everyone was pointing to. But he may turn out to be a heck of a pitcher for us.

HP: Where do you see this team at the All-Star break?

LB: It's hard to know exactly how good we're gonna be, but I certainly think we're a well-above-.500 ball club. I would hope that we'd be above .500 by the All-Star break, but even if we're not, I'm not going to change my opinion of the team. I think that every team that I've been on that's done anything here has been around .500 at the All-Star break. So that would be a good goal for us, to be there this year.

HP: So you think this is a team that could put together the type of run that's gotten you into the playoffs in the past?

LB: Absolutely. I wouldn't want to do it like we've had to do it in the past, where we've had to play .700 baseball coming down the stretch just to have our chance to make the playoffs...But by the same token, I feel like at some point we are gonna put together a run. I don't know if it'll be good enough or not, but we certainly have the talent to do it.

HP: Finish this sentence: The Astros will make the playoffs if...

LB: If we continue to get good starting pitching. I feel like our offense is going to come around. If we continue to get good work out of our starters, we'll make the playoffs.

HP: Okay, say Rick Perry's comment becomes reality and Texas secedes. Are the Astros the best team in the nation?

LB: In the nation of Texas? We're definitely (better than the Texas Rangers) until proven otherwise. We've been to the playoffs most recently, been to a World Series.

HP: Would you play in the World Baseball Classic if Texas were a country?

LB: Absolutely. There's no doubt about it.

HP: But you didn't play in the last WBC.

LB: Not in the last one, no. That's just the United States. Not nearly as important.

HP: All right, let's do a little word association: designated hitter.

LB: Terrible for the game of baseball. It's not real baseball. When the pitcher doesn't hit, the strategy's not nearly as much. It's not how the game was designed to be played.

HP: Sideburns.

LB: Spring training. Spring training only.

HP: Okay, here it looks like I wrote "cognitive dissonance."

LB: I'm not sure I understand exactly what that means. It certainly has something to do with the mind...

HP: Kind of like being in a bad way. How do you break out of a slump?

LB: It's tough, there's not really a secret remedy to get out of them...you just have to keep going out there and trying to do things the right way, and eventually it'll turn...You've gotta get through that, and the worst thing you can do is make another out. And I've done that plenty. You've gotta go up there and try to have a good at-bat, try to be a tough out, and hopefully over the course of the season, my numbers will be where they're supposed to be.

HP: When do you think you'll call it a day?

LB: I don't know. I'll take it year by year. I've got one more guaranteed year on this contract, and we'll see what happens after that. It's hard to know. Some years I've thought, I've gotta be in the last couple years of my career, and some years you think, I could do this for another five, six, seven or eight years. I'm in no hurry to make a decision one way or the other.

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