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Comeback trio are post-break HR leaders

8/11/2013

Who has the most home runs since the All-Star break? After Saturday night’s action, three guys were tied with seven apiece: Jose Bautista of the Blue Jays, Jayson Werth of the Nationals and Justin Morneau of the Twins. In other words, neither of the league leaders (Chris Davis and Paul Goldschmidt), and a couple of guys you might well have already left for dead if you weren’t a die-hard fan of the also-ran Nats or still-buried Twinkies. And, speaking as a fan, I’m glad to see all three of them getting back in the swing of things, not least because all three of them are making comebacks against injuries and expectations.

Bautista’s “comeback” might seem like a bit of a stretch, in that he has 27 home runs this season. You might say that his skills never did go away. It’s just that he did, after losing almost half of his 2012 campaign to a wrist injury that eventually required season-ending surgery. You’d be forgiven for thinking everything has been great for him because he did come out of the gate pretty hot to make a quick case that he would still be one of baseball’s best sluggers.

However, Bautista is coming off a rough pair of months, and he very clearly has not been the same guy: He’s hitting more grounders while putting more balls in play, and his rate of home runs per fly ball has come down to 15.9 percent, its lowest mark since 2009. Maybe some of that is a matter of shaking some post-surgical rust off the wrist, and maybe some of it is Father Time taking his cut. If you enjoyed watching Bautista bash 97 home runs in 2010-11, you can take his postbreak run as a positive indicator that maybe he really is back.

You don’t have to be that much of an acid-washed skeptic to suspect that Werth’s recent bit of sluggery probably makes for the shortest comeback. Werth has been demonized ever since he took the Nationals’ offer of ludicrous amounts of cash before the 2011 season, but why blame him for that? There isn’t one of us who wouldn’t have taken a nine-figure offer.

Werth’s checkered health history was an even bigger red flag than his already being beyond age 30 at the time the Nats handed him $126 million, and injuries have certainly undermined his seasons in D.C. His first season, 2011, was sapped by getting hit by pitches in three straight games in early June; whatever Werth’s reputation for fragility, he played through it, but his midseason clip of .175/.307/.277 until his bat came around at the end of July suggests he was far from his best. A fractured wrist in 2012 cost him almost three months, and this season, a hamstring strain took him out for a month.

Werth’s second-half run is quietly helping him produce his best season yet for the Nationals. In his age-34 season, he’s perhaps as healthy as he’s ever been as a National, and his seven postbreak homers are providing a small reminder of one of the reasons GM Mike Rizzo gave him the big bucks. This latest streak provides a small suggestion that maybe there are a few chapters left to write in his already unusual career.

But the guy you really have to feel for is Morneau, the former AL MVP and one of the two towers the Twins were supposed to be able to build an offense around. But ever since his best season was cut short in 2010 by a concussion, his career has not been the same, as he struggled through an injury-abbreviated 2011 and a 2012 season best celebrated for his ability to play daily once more than for his feats at the plate, with just a .773 OPS. He’s been able to keep that up this season, but his bat’s gotten worse.

I’m not going to pretend that Morneau is going to put the Twins back in the headlines any time soon. Nor is Morneau really hitting all that well since the break: .237/.290/.505 with those seven homers and very little else, and they’re being hit against the Mariners, White Sox and Astros. But if anyone playing today deserved a few weeks to enjoy at least an echo of what he once had going for him as one of the game’s top sluggers, I’d agree it ought to be Morneau. This might not be a comeback, but at least it’s a reminder of what was. More power to him.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.