SURPRISE, Ariz. — The player who many consider to be the key piece to the Texas Rangers offensive success in 2013 entered spring training only five months removed from knee surgery and is coming off a season in which he had only 81 at-bats.Lance Berkmans name couldnt be mentioned without the obligatory if-he-stays-healthy qualifier.That hasnt changed after his two-plus weeks at the Surprise Recreation Campus, but Berkman hasnt looked or felt like the frail old man many imagined when he signed in early January.The troublesome right knee continues to get stronger while hurting less. Berkman, 37, hit his first homer of the spring Wednesday in his fifth Cactus League game, and not even running has been a big obstacle for the Big Puma.He likes the path hes on with Opening Day less than a month away.Its definitely not where Id like it to be, but its not far from there, said Berkman, who had knee surgery Sept. 11. We still have three weeks or so to get it there. For me, the most exciting part is that it hasnt taken any steps backward. Its only gotten better.That might explain his presence in the Rangers lineup the past games. Manager Ron Washington is planning to give Berkman the day off Thursday, though forecasts for gloomy weather could alter the plan.Berkman might have different ideas, too.That could change according to how he charges my office, Washington said.Berkman, who also had knee surgery May 26, continues to do just about every lower-body strengthening exercise that Rangers trainers throw at him. He said that he has no pain hitting, and the discomfort while on the bases has dropped.Hitting is why the Rangers signed him to a one-year deal worth $11 million. Berkman knows that hes not Carl Lewis or Usain Bolt or even Ian Kinsler, so there has never been a ton of concern that the knee would be a major hindrance.I never really doubted it, said Berkman, who Saturday scored from second base on a single to left field. I felt like worst-case scenario I would have to deal with some discomfort during the season, but thats not anything unusual. But I am encouraged by the progress that its made.So are the Rangers, who watched Berkman take left-hander Hisanori Takahashi over the visitors bullpen in left field Wednesday in a 3-2 victory over the Chicago Cubs at Surprise Stadium.He pushed his spring average to .250 with a 1-for-2 day that included a walk. The homer came as a right-handed hitter, which is considered the switch-hitters least-effective side, but the plan is to use him as the Rangers No. 3 hitter no matter what arm the opposing pitcher uses.Another indication that the Rangers are comfortable with his knee is the notion that a game at first base is in his future. It might not be next week, but it will happen before the Rangers head home for the regular season.Washington sees a veteran player who is right on track.Hes not trying to play catch up, Washington said. Timing is important right now. Its going to take some at-bats, but hes a veteran and hes certainly aware of what he can do when he goes up there. The more he sees pitches, the rest of it will take care of itself.The only concern Berkman has is to avoid suffering a setback. Thats been the case so far for the player many consider to be the key to the Rangers offense in 2013.Its been a slow and steady progression, Berkman said. Ive gained strength. Ive gained the ability to move quicker, and the pain is decreasing as we go. Those are all good things.
Jeff Wilson, 817-390-7760 Twitter: @JeffWilson_FWST