WASHINGTON - The last time the Phillies faced Lance Berkman, he was hitting .298 with a modest four home runs. Starting today, however, they will have to contend with a hitter who has established himself as the National League MVP favorite at the quarter pole of the 2008 season.
Berkman's numbers have transformed since he went 3-for-12 in a mid-April series in Philadelphia. In his last 27 games before last night, he hit .465 with 11 home runs and 30 RBI. He recently had a 17-game hitting streak snapped.
Going into last night, he was hitting .388 with 16 home runs and 44 RBI.
And nobody seems to be surprised.
"He's maybe the best player in the league, especially when he's been going the way he is right now," said Eric Bruntlett, who played with Berkman in Houston for five seasons. "I think he's one of those guys, for whatever reason - I think part of it being that Houston is not a big media market - he never really gets the attention that I think he's deserved.
"He's been one of the top handful of players in the league for a number of years now, and I don't think he's been recognized as that, outside of baseball and the guys who have to face him," Bruntlett added.
But what makes him so good?
Phillies closer Brad Lidge, who played with Berkman for six seasons in Houston, said there isn't a pitch that Berkman struggles to hit.
"There's nothing that he can't hit," Lidge said.
Not that the closer wouldn't like to try.
The first time he faced his old team, he didn't get a chance to pitch.
This time, he's hoping for a shot.
"The way I kind of look at it, I always want a chance to face the best guys," Lidge said. "Sometimes they are going to get you, most of the time you are going to get them, but it's those battles and that competition that makes baseball so fun."
Bruntlett didn't have much advice from a hitter's perspective on how to attack Berkman.
"To come up with a scouting report would be pretty tough to do," Bruntlett said. "Right now, you'd probably walk him."
Righthanded pitcher Kris Benson will make his first appearance in an extended spring training game today, throwing four innings or 60 pitches against a Tampa Bay affiliate.
If all goes well, he will pitch again on May 27. Benson is recovering from a couple of setbacks since undergoing shoulder surgery last year.
Jayson Werth was back in the line up last night after 2 days on the bench, starting in rightfield while Shane Victorino started in center. It was the first time in more than a week that Werth had started in rightfield - manager Charlie Manuel had been using him in center while keeping Victorino in right.
Greg Dobbs, who had a game-winning pinch-hit single 2 nights ago, said his back was "a little tight," but that it was not a major concern. The back has bothered him since batting practice on Monday . . . Manuel said Chad Durbin would likely be available tonight to pitch. The reliever's availability was doubtful prior to last night's game. Durbin's arm is still recovering from throwing 66 pitches in the Phillies' rain-delayed loss to the Blue Jays Sunday . . . Chris Snelling (knee inflammation) took batting practice yesterday and is expected to serve as the designated hitter in an extended spring training game on Saturday . . . Righthanded pitcher Victor Rosario (shoulder) threw a bullpen session yesterday. *