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Berkman appears to be the magic ingredient in Cardinals stew

I'm completely amazed, so far, with what Lance Berkman has brought to the table for the Cardinals at this late stage of his career.

I thought Berkman might hit okay and that he might be passable in the outfield. But I don't know that I expected him to his six homers by the All-Star break, much less by two weeks into the season.

But the real boost he has given the Cardinals is something I didn't expect at all. He's completely taken over as the clubhouse leader. And it's transformed the Redbirds from a team of professional but reserved ballplayers into a boisterous, motivated team.

It's not that I questioned Berkman's leadership skills or his motivation. But it's not like he signed on to a team full of rookies. The Cardinals already had a handful of the most established veterans in the major leagues on the roster in the form of Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday and Chris Carpenter. Who would have thunk that Berkman would come in and suddenly become the alpha dog?

But he undeniably has. Watching the games on TV during the recently completed road trip, the players seem to gather around Berkman in the dugout waiting to hear what he'd say next. (I was slightly disappointed to see that Pujols refused to participate in Berkman's gag of getting most of the team to dress up in bad turtlenecks and sport coats ala Will Ferrell's Ron Burgandy character during their road trip travels. But most of the guys seemed to buy in and have a good time with it.)

I thought it was funny when Berkman did an interview after arriving in St. Louis during which he talked about how much he hated playing against Tony La Russa -- But how excited he was about playing for the Cardinals skipper. I felt exactly the same way about Berkman. Although I respected the Astros a lot more than other National League Central rivals like the Cubs, Reds and Brewers, Berkman was by far my least favorite player in the Houston clubhouse.

It wasn't because he was a jerk. Far from it. He was the guy who always seemed to be at the plate at the most crucial moment. And he always found a way to come through. He'd hit a go-ahead home run and circle the bases like it was no big deal... Like he expected it to happen. He wasn't a hot dog or a showboat. But he seemed so smug with himself -- so confident in his abilities that he could beat you without working up a sweat. And it drove me up the wall.

Truthfully, I didn't know he had the goods to back it up anymore. But in the best shape of his career and recommitted to baseball, we're experiencing the treat of vintage Berkman -- but this time he's on our side.

While a lot of the experts have counted the Cardinals out because of the loss of Adam Wainwright for the season, the Birds still have enough firepower to be a factor in the National League Central. And, with tons of post-season experience and veteran leadership in the Cardinals dugout, the Birds have a huge advantage in the intangibles department.

While Scott Rolen is rolling his eyes every time Brandon Phillips shoots his mouth off, the Cardinals have established a super group of veterans who can do the job on the field -- AND weather the storm during the inevitable low points of the season.