ST. LOUIS — So far, the Lance Berkman comeback tour has been a smash success.
Berkman hit a tie-breaking three-run homer in the eighth inning and totaled four RBIs in the St. Louis Cardinals’ 6-3 victory over the Florida Marlins and previously untouchable ace Josh Johnson on Thursday. The 35-year-old Berkman leads the National League with 32 RBIs and is second with a .392 average, trailing only Matt Holliday’s blistering .417 start.
The switch-hitting Berkman, who has a lot more power batting left-handed, foiled the Marlins’ strategy when he connected off lefty Mike Dunn for his second homer of the season batting right-handed.
“He’s really swinging well against left-handed pitching now, so I think as the season goes on they’re going to be more concerned about making that move,’’ manager Tony La Russa said. “He’s got a nice stroke both ways now.’’
Berkman’s 10th homer and second at home gave the Cardinals enough of a cushion to salvage a split against the Marlins, whose 19-11 start is the best in franchise history.
“I’m not sure why but in the course of my career if I’m in a good grove left handed for some reason, my right handed swing just gets a little bit better,’’ Berkman said. “It’s still not great, but it was a good one today.’’
Berkman batted a career-worst .248 with the Astros and Yankees with 14 homers and 58 RBIs last season, and signed a one-year free agent deal with the Cardinals after he said Houston, his first call in the offseason, “told me to take a hike.’’
“Hopefully it’ll last, but it’s a long, long season,’’ he said. “We’ve got a long way to go.’’
Johnson was battered for five runs in his first start of the month. Holliday had two hits and two RBIs and Albert Pujols singled three times against Johnson (3-1), the National League pitcher of the month who had an 0.88 ERA in April.
Holliday fought off an inside pitch for the tying hit with one out in the eighth, chasing Johnson after 114 pitches, before Berkman homered.
Johnson allowed only 18 hits in 41 innings in April. The Cardinals went 8 for 25 against him in May, finishing with three straight singles as Johnson’s ERA climbed to 1.68.
Jason Motte (1-0) had a strikeout and walk in the eighth and Eduardo Sanchez finished for his third save in three chances.
Johnson gave up three straight hits, including Holliday’s RBI single in the first, only the second time all season he’d given up even one hit the first three innings. He also had a walk, but escaped with only one run allowed after Pujols was easily thrown out by center fielder Chris Coghlan trying to go to third on Holliday’s hit.
Cardinals starter Jake Westbrook was perfect for 4 2-3 innings and the Marlins didn’t get the ball out of the infield until Mike Stanton flied out to right for the second out in the fifth. The next hitter, Greg Dobbs, was the first Florida batter to have a 1-0 count and then delivered the first hit.
Suddenly, Westbrook seemed vulnerable and the Marlins had four singles in a row, including RBIs by Omar Infante and Johnson, for a 2-1 lead. After needing 54 pitches to get 14 outs, Westbrook required 20 pitches to get the final out of the fifth.
Berkman’s sacrifice fly, a drive to the wall in left, tied it for St. Louis in the sixth, but the Marlins regained the lead in the seventh when John Buck doubled off the center field wall and Infante followed with an RBI single.
Colby Rasmus drifted to the wall late on a ball that appeared catchable, and a no doubt frustrated Westbrook raced off the field and into the tunnel after Infante’s hit.
Johnson walked three of the first 15 hitters, matching his career total covering 27 2-3 innings against the Cardinals entering the game.