No Problems With Michael In Houston

By Richard Justice
Updated: May 22, 2009

Michael Bourn (right) celebrates an Astro win with teammate Miguel Tejada

Michael Bourn (right) celebrates an Astro win with teammate Miguel Tejada

HOUSTON — Wouldn’t it be something if Michael Bourn turned out to be exactly the player Ed Wade thought he’d be?

His batting average has been hovering around .300 much of this season, he’s leading the National League in stolen bases, and his play in center field has been first-rate.

He has been so good that manager Cecil Cooper has moved him back to the leadoff spot, and if things work out the way Wade envisions it, Bourn could spend, oh, the next decade there.

“You’re starting to see what this guy can do,” Cooper said. “He’s a pretty exciting player, and I think there’s way more he can do.”

Bourn was Wade’s most interesting acquisition in his first offseason as general manager of the Astros. Wade saw him as a prototypical leadoff hitter and believed he’d give the Astros a dimension of speed and excitement they’d seldom had. At the time, though, Bourn was 25 years old with just 127 big league at-bats. In other words, the deal was a huge leap of faith.

All Wade had to give up to get him was Brad Lidge. That deal looked pretty lopsided after one year considering how Lidge helped the Phillies win the World Series and Bourn batted .229.

There’s a lesson in there somewhere about judging young players too quickly. Maybe, just maybe, Bourn was dealing with the usual transition period.

“He was a young guy getting to play every day for the first time, and there’s always growing pains,” Cooper said.

Bourn’s offseason work emphasized cutting down on strikeouts, hitting the ball to the left side of the infield and perfecting his bunting skills.

“One bunt hit a week,” Tal Smith said, “is the difference between hitting .250 and .300.”

Bourn showed progress while playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic and working with Houston hitting guru Sid Holland. He believed he was on the right track when he showed up at spring training, and then one day, Lance Berkman invited him to the batting cage for some individual work.

Potential always there

“Everybody saw the potential,” Berkman said. “I wasn’t saying anything that anyone else wasn’t saying. Maybe I was just putting it a different way. There’s no reason for him not to hit. He’d shown flashes. What can you say to him that would help him do it on a more consistent basis?”

Berkman’s advice was simple: use the entire field.

“I just told him, ‘Hey look, you’ve got to start hitting the ball to the opposite field,’ ” he said. “He was making so many outs on ground balls to the right side. If he hits the ball on the ground to the right side, he’s out no matter how fast he is. If he hits it to the left side, he has a great chance with that speed.”

Bourn’s potential begins with world-class baseball speed.

“I know the man above has blessed me with some things I can do,” Bourn said. “I just have to take advantage of them. I work on it every day. I feel I can do different things to help us win — a great play in the outfield, an offensive play, working the count to get the pitcher tired. I just have to keep my head level and stay humble and play the game.”

One amazing aspect of last season is that he never seemed to lose confidence . Even when he was struggling to stay in the lineup, he mixed in good stretches .

He hit .218 before the All-Star break and .255 after. He had two month-long stretches when he hit close to .300. Both those were followed by long dry spells.

“I really never had doubts,” he said. “I looked at it that I was more inconsistent than anything else. It’s OK to have ups and downs during the year, but you want more ups than downs. I had more downs than ups.”

Now his game within the game is to hit the ball to the left side of the diamond, to keep it on the ground and to keep grinding.

Getting close

“I don’t mind hitting the ball to third base after getting jammed,” he said. “That tells me I’m close to where I want to be. At least I’ve got a chance when I hit it over there. I can loop it over the third baseman’s head or beat it out. I’ve done it a couple of times this year already. ”

There’s still no way of knowing how good he’s going to be or when he’s going to get there. He entered Thursday’s game with just 732 career at-bats, which is about a season and a half.

Wade had this vision of him as being the kind of weapon the Astros have seldom had. He might yet end up being right.

“All the good teams seem to have the guy that can make things happen at the top,” Berkman said. “They make it so much easier on the guys that hit in the middle of the order. He’s got the potential to be one of those special players.”