Puma says relax. Did you know Pudge is about to set a record?

Lance Berkman did just about everything in his power to break out of his seemingly endless season-opening slump — he took early batting practice, watched tape and took swing after swing after swing over a countless number of hours in the cage.

When the calendar flipped to June, Puma decided to start thinking less and simply take it easy. He gave himself a break and stopped overanalyzing his struggles, which sounds easy enough but is often one of the toughest things for a player to do.

You can’t dispute the results. Since June 1 (prior to Tuesday’s opener with the Rangers), Berkman is hitting .357 (15-for-42) with three homers and eight RBIs.

Logic suggests his numbers have improved simply because he’s an elite Major League hitter, and the best ones always come around. Do I believe that his decision to stop putting in so much overtime is the sole reason for the turnaround? Of course not. But there’s something to be said about a player who can step back, assess the situation and realize that maybe sometimes less is more.

In explaining his new approach, Puma also pointed out that every player is different, and there’s no right and wrong way to deal with a slump. If a player goes 0-for-4 and feels better taking a bunch of swings in the cage after the game, so be it. Some players need the constant repetitions, a ton of extra work, and a place to channel their energy in order to feel comfortable during games. It’s entirely possible that Puma will, at some point, feel he needs some extra work in the cage. But for now, he’s going to relax. The method appears to be working.

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The Dodgers wrapped up a weekend series with the Rangers in Arlington prior to the Astros’ arrival, and a couple of former Houston players who now playing in L.A. left behind greetings and salutations for their former teammates. On the dry erase board that normally bears the Astros lineup was a note from Brad Ausmus and Mark Loretta. Most were private jokes that I didn’t understand, but one line was addressed to Darin Erstad — “Keep your head up.” Encouraging words from a couple of veterans who understand what it’s like to struggle at the plate. (Especially Ausmus.)

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The next official game Pudge Rodriguez plays will set the Major League Baseball record for all-time games caught. Thanks to the Astros exemplary media relations department, we now have these fun “Betcha didn’t know” facts about Pudge’s career that led him to the eve of his historic day:

Pudge, who played his first 11 years with the Rangers, played in his first game on June 20, 1991, at the Chicago White Sox. The Rangers starting pitcher was Kevin Brown, and the opposing White Sox catcher was none other than…the other Pudge — Carlton Fisk, the holder of the record that Rodriguez will break this week in Arlington.

Rodriguez’s first hit arrived during the same game — it was a ninth-inning single off Melido Perez that drove in two runs. Rodriguez’s first home run arrived more than two months later, on Aug. 30 during a home game against the Royals. It was a solo homer off Storm Davis.

On Sept. 5, 2007, he logged his 2,473rd career hit, passing Ted Simmons for most hits by a catcher all-time.

Pudge then moved into third place all-time in games caught a little over two weeks later, on Sept. 22. It was his 2,057th game behind the plate, and he passed Hall of Famer Gary Carter on the all-time list.

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And we conclude with the latest series of snapshots from batting practice…

Hitting coach Sean Berry and the Puma walk out of the tunnel to discover it was about 93 degrees…down from 98 earlier that afternoon. Not that I need more ammo to truly appreciate the roof at Minute Maid Park, but every once in a while it’s nice to be reminded how lucky we are.

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Darin Erstad has a strict regimen before every game. You could say he has a heightened intensity level. So I play it safe and take pictures when he’s not looking.

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Erstad and Hunter Pence became fast friends as soon as Erstad signed with the Astros in ’08. The two are very much alike in how they prepare for and approach the game. Ironically, Erstad was Pence’s favorite player when he was a blossoming high school player.

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The ridiculously high temperatures were a hot topic, so to speak, during BP on Tuesday. Roy Oswalt and I were discussing humidity and I was trying to explain to him that humidity levels are higher in Houston than Arlington. He had a different take on it.

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So, as you can see, we just agreed to disagree on that one. 

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Hunter Pence talked to reporters about Rodriguez, who tied the all-time games caught record later that evening. Pence grew up in Arlington and watched Pudge for many years through his youth. Pence said it’s still strange to see Pudge in anything but a Rangers uniform.

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Pudge’s pending record-setting game is pretty big news in Arlington, where he spent the first 11 years of his career. Here was my vantage point from the dugout as Pudge was met with about a dozen or so photographers here to document the momentous occasion.

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Pudge’s teammates, stretching.

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You haven’t lived until you snap a shot of Jose Valverde from this angle. Here he is signing autographs before BP.
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2 Comments

Eschenfelder seems pretty excited to be sitting next to a girl tonight lol

Oh that Roy! Handsome from any angle. But it looks like his hair was less curly in Arlington than in Houston!!!!!!!

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