Albert Pujols is on the verge of etching his name among the game’s elite hitters.
Pujols’ Triple Crown chase
Albert Pujols is challenging for the NL lead in all three Triple Crown categories. A look at the top five in each statistic:
Albert Pujols Cardinals 32
Albert Pujols Cardinals 87
Hanley Ramirez Marlins .349
Adrian Gonzalez Padres 24
Prince Fielder Brewers 78
Carlos Beltran Mets .336
Mark Reynolds D-backs 24
Ryan Howard Phillies 67
Pablo Sandoval Giants .333
Adam Dunn Nationals 23
Adam Dunn Nationals 62
Albert Pujols Cardinals .332
Raul Ibanez Phillies 22
Mark Reynolds D-backs 62
Miguel Tejada Astros .329
*All stats through Wednesday, July 15
Put aside pennant races, for a moment.
Don’t get too caught up with who is about to get fired.
And get ready for Pujols to climb into baseball’s center stage in the second half of the season.
When play resumed on Thursday, Pujols was poised for a run at becoming the first big-league player to win a Triple Crown since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967, when he shared the AL home run title with Harmon Killebrew, and the first in the National League since Joe Medwick in 1937.
Pujols came out of the All-Star break leading the NL with 32 home runs — eight ahead of Adrian Gonzalez and Mark Reynolds, who are tied for second — and 87 RBI — nine ahead of No. 2 Prince Fielder and 20 more than No. 3 Ryan Howard.
He was fourth in the league with a .332 average, but No. 2 Carlos Beltran of the Mets has played in only 40 games because of a deep knee bruise, making his chance of qualifying for the title unlikely. Hanley Ramirez is leading the NL at .347, but he is a shortstop and has to deal with the weather and travel demands in Florida, which make a second-half fade likely. And Pujols is only a point back of Pablo Sandoval.
Is it just a coincidence that three of the five NL Triple Crowns have gone to Cardinals? As well as Medwick in 1937, Rogers Hornsby won the Triple Crown in 1922 and 1925. Chuck Klein of Philadelphia won it in 1933, and Hugh Duffy of Boston was a Triple Crown winner in 1894.
Pujols, however, won’t be the only show worth watching in the second half of the season:
Out West: Injuries have slowed the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, helping spark AL West title dreams in Texas and Seattle, where overachieving first halves have provided second-half hopes. The Rangers, looking for their first postseason appearance since 1999, have gotten solid efforts from potential free agent starting pitchers Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla, and benefited from the off-season gamble of bring up rookie shortstop Elvis Andrus and moving All-Star Michael Young to third.
Rookie Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik, meanwhile, has seen his off-season shakeup have an in-season impact beginning with the signing of first baseman Russell Branyan, sending a minor-league pitcher to Boston for journeyman David Aardsma, who has become the dominate closer, and a three-team deal involving the Mets and Indians that brought the Mariners left fielder Endy Chavez, center fielder Franklin Gutierrez, and starter Jason Vargas.
The Angels have a demanding conclusion to the season — 50 games in the final 52 days, including 14 of the final 20 against the Yankees, Red Sox and Rangers.
Firing line: Three managers were first-half victims — Bob Melvin replaced by A.J. Hinch in Arizona, Clint Hurdle by Jim Tracy in Colorado and Manny Acta by Jim Riggleman in Washington. Who is next? Cleveland has been the biggest disappointment in the game, which puts Eric Wedge on alert, although general manager Mark Shapiro has said Wedge will finish the season. Trey Hillman has a year left on his contract in Kansas City, but 100 losses are looming for a team that went into the break having lost 33 of 49.
Mets manager Jerry Manuel would be wise not to make any long-term lease agreements, and his boss, general manager Omar Minaya, will have to answer for a team that has the NL’s highest payroll for the seventh year in a row but is headed to missing the post-season for the sixth time in those seven seasons.
Has time run out on Toronto general manager J.P. Riccardi’s annual promise that the Jays will contend next year? He no longer can harp on the trouble of keeping up with the Yankees and Red Sox in light of the rise of the low-cost Tampa Bay Rays. He made a first-half concession, announcing he would trade right-hander Roy Halladay even though the Jays were technically still in the AL East race. In reality, however, the Jays are 5-14 against the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays, which is a big part of why the Jays have followed up a 27-14 start to the season by losing 32 of the next 49 games. And the Jays have 35 games remaining against the AL East Big Three.
Buying time: Oakland is the only AL West team that can already forget about October. General manager Billy Beane, however, does have enough goodwill built up that a third consecutive losing season won’t shake his power, and will help ownership overlook an off-season gone bad that included the unproductive additions of the likes of Jason Giambi, Nomar Garciaparra and Matt Holliday.
Odds are Holliday will be dealt and Beane won’t get as much in return as the package he gave Colorado to acquire Holliday. Problem is, with agent Scott Boras running the show, Beane knows he can’t afford to lose the gamble of offering Holliday arbitration in hopes of getting two draft picks compensation when Holliday signs with another team. With the uncertain economic times, if Boras doesn’t feel the proper market is available, he won’t be afraid to recommend Holliday accept the arbitration, which he did with Kevin Millwood in Atlanta a few years ago.
Sleepers: Minnesota has a schedule that makes the Twins ripe for a second-half surge. The Twins are done with the Yankees, Boston and Tampa Bay. They have 16 games remaining with the White Sox and Tigers, their two prime challengers in the AL Central.
Colorado has rallied since Tracy took over as manager. They went into the break having won 27 of 36, just two games back of San Francisco in the NL wild-card race. The final six weeks should give them an edge. They play 26 of their final 41 games at Coors Field, where they have won 14 of their last 19 games.
August Angst: Boras is looming. Teams have until Aug. 17 to sign their selections in the June draft or they lose the rights to the players. Only 11 of the 32 first-round picks have signed so far. Six of the unsigned are represented by Boras, including the top three picks in the draft — right-handed pitcher Stephen Strasburg of San Diego State to Washington; first baseman Dustin Ackley of North Carolina to Seattle, and outfielder Donavan Tate of Cartersville, Ga., to San Diego.
He also represents right-handed pitcher Jacob Turner of Westminster Christian High School in St. Louis, who went to Detroit, No. 9; shortstop Grant Green of USC, who went to Oakland No. 13, and second baseman LeVon Washington of Buchholz High School in Gainesville, Fla., who went to Tampa Bay No. 30.
There is a future: Baltimore is beginning to turn over its roster, and general manager Andy MacPhail can find hope built around a quality outfield in which Nick Markakis is now joined by center fielder Adam Jones, an All-Star this year, and rookie Nolan Reimold, arrival of former No. 1 pick Matt Weiters at catcher, and emergence of rookie right-hander Brad Bergesen.
Curtain call: John Smoltz decided to pitch one more season, which means he won’t be a first-time Hall of Fame candidate along with former Atlanta teammates Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, but he could be part of a distinguished class if, as expected, left-hander Randy Johnson, outfielder Ken Griffey, Jr., and right-handed pitcher Pedro Martinez hang it up after this season.