JUPITER, Fla. • After spending all of spring training stamped "Handle With Care," Cardinals outfielder Lance Berkman completed seven innings in right field Thursday and said he has another label in mind for the regular season.
He'd prefer "everyday player."
"I've never had a caution flag, so I don't like it," Berkman said. "I like to do my job without having to protect this or protect that. ... I want to be an everyday player, and, heck, when you're an everyday player that means you play as many games as you can play. I hope that I can maintain that status of being an everyday player."
Berkman made his first start in right field Thursday since the first game of Grapefruit League play, on Feb. 28. Since, the Cardinals have used him exclusively at designated hitter because of left elbow soreness and, to a lesser degree, a calf strain. The switch-hitter and five-time All-Star agreed that Thursday was the first time all spring that he played without restriction, without the bubble-wrap the Cardinals have encased him in this month.
The Cardinals' right fielder handled two line-drive base hits to right field. He had no discomfort throwing and no trouble "letting loose."
"I feel like I can roll out of bed on Christmas morning and play an adequate right field," said Berkman, who has not been a regular in the outfield since 2004. "I've been out there. I've played right field in a World Series. It's good to get your legs in shape. It's good to feel the rhythm of the game."
Berkman, a 12-year vet, understands the attention given his return to the outfield but finds any consternation foolish. The bigger question the Cardinals have invited this spring isn't about where Berkman will play or even what kind of outfield he'll play, but how often he'll play. Manager Tony La Russa repeated Thursday a plan to be proactive with Berkman's days off to protect against aches and pains that could swell into injuries and cost him playing time.
This past month, the Cardinals have been hyper-cautious with the right fielder because, as he said, it's a "luxury of spring training." Berkman remained at DH until they could tame the ache in his left arm, an injury brought on by the increased throwing he did with the move to the outfield. When his calf muscle yipped, he was scratched from a couple of starts, and last week when the Cardinals didn't have access to the DH in a road game Berkman was supposed to start, he remained back in Jupiter. On Wednesday, Berkman batted lefthanded against a lefty to protect the elbow because he believes extending it after a swing would cause more aggravation than a throw.
That DH "luxury" is about to vanish as the Cardinals have only one game remaining this spring against an American League club, and they will soon stop using the DH in games against NL foes. Berkman's next start is scheduled to be Saturday in Kissimmee, Fla., against his former team, Houston.
The plan is for him to play right field.
Berkman understands the Cardinals' eggshell approach. "The last two years I've had leg injuries," he said. "I think they want to be cautious to prevent that. Obviously you don't do a team any good if you're on the bench. I understand the thought process. ... It doesn't mean that I have to be handled with kid gloves."
Said La Russa: "He gets the same TLC as everybody. I just want him to be healthy. As long as he's healthy, we've got a player."
Berkman made two throws from right field Thursday, hitting the cutoff man from the corner and firing to second after scooping a base hit right at him. He said the "elbow is behind me (and) if I had an opportunity to throw a guy out at home, I could have done it." He felt his swing improved Thursday, too, as he twice lashed line drives the opposite way to left field. Both were caught, contributing to his 0-for-four afternoon and his current two-for-15 stretch.
After the game, La Russa asserted that a healthy Berkman is a productive Berkman. That's why the Cardinals are "careful with the health questions," the manager said.
Berkman's 2010 started with a knee injury that required surgery. His manager in Houston, Brad Mills, said he believes knee pain forced Berkman to use more upper body in his swing and "no doubt" contributed to his struggles, including a career-low .248 average. The right fielder said at his age, 35, he recognizes the body isn't "as resilient," but he doesn't want mileage or his recent injuries to become synonyms for fragile.
The work he put in this winter to slim down and strengthen up has him convinced he not only has his health but can better maintain it. He suggested he could play 155 games this season. La Russa said two out of every three is still enough to be considered "everyday."
"I understand the questions," Berkman said. "I am eager to just be back in the mode of playing baseball and if something happens during the course of 162 games, then it happens. But it will be nice not to be worried every day where we have to do this or have to do that to protect something. ... Heck, I want to be out there. If we're playing a game, I want to be out there."