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Berkman, Ellsbury earn MLB comeback player awards

By Jim Salter
Associated Press / October 13, 2011

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ST. LOUIS—Lance Berkman didn't set out to prove the skeptics wrong. He just figured that, even after struggling through an injury-riddled 2010, he still had good years ahead of him.

The St. Louis Cardinals outfielder made that clear in 2011, hitting .301 with 31 home runs and 94 RBIs to win the National League comeback player award.

"It doesn't take long for people to move on to the next page, so to speak, in the game, and say, 'Well, he's lost it,' or you're never heard from again. You see it happen all the time," Berkman said.

Boston outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury won the American League award. The honors were announced Thursday, and were picked by the 30 team beat reporters from MLB.com.

Berkman was not in the lineup in Game 4 of the NL championship series on Thursday night, given his lifetime 3 for 32 showing against Milwaukee starter Randy Wolf.

Berkman also had a bruise on right hip after being hit by a pitch in Wednesday's 4-3 win over Milwaukee, and manager Tony La Russa said it was a good time to give him a day off. The Cardinals led 2-1 in the best-of-seven series.

The switch-hitter ranked in the top 10 in the NL in homers (tied for ninth), walks (fourth with 92), slugging percentage (fifth at .547) and on-base percentage (third with .412).

An injured left knee played a big role in Berkman's struggles in 2010, when the career .296 hitter batted .248 with just 14 homers and 58 RBIs in splitting time with the Astros and Yankees. Some believed that Berkman, now 35, was on the downhill side of his career.

"I wasn't thinking that I had to come back and prove people wrong," Berkman said. "That wasn't my attitude at all."

Berkman shed about 20 pounds over the winter while working with a personal trainer. In addition to a strong season at the plate, he was respectable in the outfield after playing most first base in recent seasons. He was a key player in the Cardinals' remarkable run to the wild-card playoff spot after trailing Atlanta by 10 1-2 games in late August.

"He's just been a great player for our team," La Russa said.

Berkman said it was actually the 2010 playoffs when he realized his career was far from over. Berkman was 5 for 16 (.313) with a homer and four RBIs combined in the Yankees' divisional series win over Minnesota and ALCS loss to Texas.

"That playoff experience last year was kind of what set me off in the offseason feeling like, all right, I can get back to swing the bat like I know I can," he said.

Berkman had long been a Cardinals nemesis in his 11-plus seasons in Houston. After years of battling the Cardinals in the NL Central, St. Louis was one of the few places where he wanted to extend his career. In fact, he contacted the Cardinals in the offseason to see if they were interested in signing him.

"Just the fit seemed perfect for me, just knowing those guys and coming over here, everything I thought it would be," Berkman said. "I felt like I fit in pretty quick."

It worked out so well the Cardinals have already re-signed Berkman for 2012.

The 28-year-old Ellsbury played just 18 games in 2010 because of injuries and hit only .192.

Ellsbury came back as a force this season. He set career highs in most offensive categories, hitting .321 with 32 home runs, 105 RBIs, 46 doubles, five triples, 119 runs and 39 stolen bases.

He became the first Boston player to hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases in a season and led the major leagues with 364 total bases and 83 extra-base hits. He was third in the AL with 212 hits, and tied for third in runs and doubles.

The Red Sox missed the playoffs this year after a major collapse in September.

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