NL has interesting race for its first Triple Crown winner since 1937

Gonzalez, Votto and Pujols in hunt for rare exploit

September 12, 2010|By Phil Rogers

Way back when, in the ancient era known as the All-Star break, there was talk of a serious Triple Crown challenge in 2010.

Turns out we were right, just not quite dead on. The focus of attention at midseason was the Tigers' Miguel Cabrera. He has continued to have a fine season, but the Blue Jays' Juan Bautista is lapping him in the home run race, as is the Rangers' Josh Hamilton in the batting race.

The situation in the National League, however, is fascinating.

The Rockies' Carlos Gonzalez and the Reds' Joey Votto are in the top three in all of the Triple Crown categories and the Cardinals' Albert Pujols would be if he could bring his average up a little.

The current positioning suggests a batting title for Gonzalez, who entered the weekend hitting .337; a home run crown for Pujols, who had 37, and an RBI title for Votto or Gonzalez, who were tiedfor the league lead with 100.

But if any of those three finds a sixth gear down the stretch, he could deliver the NL's first Triple Crown since the Cardinals' Ducky Medwick in 1937.

Reds manager Dusty Baker believes it helps Gonzalez, Votto and Pujols to be on teams that have shots at playoff spots.

"As athletes we are trained to win," he told Tracy Ringolsby of foxsports.com. "It's easier for a player on a team in a pennant race to play for a team than for himself. … You wake up and can't wait to come to the park to see what the next day brings."

Todd Helton flirted with hitting .400 in 2000 season but didn't hit within the context of a playoff race, as the Rockies were headed to a fourth-place finish in the NL West. He says it's easier to achieve personal goals when your attention is diverted somewhat from your at-bats.

"There's no doubt the pennant race changes the focus of the players," he said. "Their focus is on winning each night. We were 20 games out and eliminated from any postseason hope."

Pujols, who was only 8-for-40 in his last 11 games entering the weekend, is regaining the stroke he used to hit .427 over the previous 24 games. Votto, homerless in 11 games through Thursday, and Gonzalez must use their hitter-friendly home parks to hit homers in bunches. The Reds are home for 13 of their last 22, the Rockies for 12 of 22.

The Braves' Chipper Jones says Gonzalez has an unfair advantage.

"If he's doing the same thing on the road that he's doing at home, I'd be glad to give him credit," Jones told the Atlanta Journal Constitution. "And he's a tremendous player, don't get me wrong, but the numbers? He's hitting like .390 at home with 25 homers and 65 ribbies?"

Pretty close. Gonzalez entered the weekend hitting .387 with 25 homers and 66 RBIs at home.

What of it? When Carl Yastrzemski won baseball's last Triple Crown in 1967 for the AL's Red Sox, his numbers were much better at Fenway Park (.332-27-74) than on the road (.321-17-47). And Medwick hit a smooth .388 with 18 homers and 80 RBIs at Sportsman's Park in '37.

They didn't apologize in their speeches when they were inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Hanging in there: In a quest for fairness, some analysts believe MLB should reduce the number of players on September rosters, perhaps cutting it from 40 to 30. The shame of that is it probably would eliminate some of the best stories of perseverance.

Three of those this season involve the Dodgers' John Lindsey, a 33-year-old first baseman who became the oldest player to be promoted to the big leagues for the first time since 2002; the Tigers' Max St. Pierre, who spent 14 years in the minors, 13 with the Detroit organization, and the Braves' J.C. Boscan, a catcher who also spent 14 years in the minors, 12 with Atlanta.

St. Pierre, a 30-year-old defensive specialist who has a career .251 average in the minors, spoke for all three of these new arrivals when he was assigned No. 63, which he had in spring training as a non-roster invitee.

"They can give me double zero," St. Pierre said. "I'll take it."

Boscan, 30, is also a strong defensive catcher who hasn't hit enough to get to the Braves.

"He's a wonderful kid," manager Bobby Cox said. "He probably has had the best arm in the organization for the last 14 years."

Lindsey had the poor timing of being a 13th-round pick of the Rockies in 1995, the year they took Helton in the first round.

He spent seven years in the Colorado system, none above Class A, and watched 29 teammates from those teams climb to the big leagues. He was in his 16th minor league season this year and led the Pacific Coast League with a .353 average while hitting 25 home runs and driving in 97.

He said his knees buckled when Albuquerque manager Tim Wallach told him he had been called up.

"I couldn't believe it," he said. "It was a dream come true. I'm thankful I finally made it to the major leagues, but I want to try to play until I'm 40."

The last word: "He never ceases to amaze us. He's Babe Ruth all over again." — Twins manager Ron Gardenhire on Jim Thome, who entered Saturday with 586 homers, tied with Frank Robinson for eighth all time.

progers@tribune.com

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