There's a legit Triple Crown triple threat
The subject of ending baseball’s 43-year drought of Triple Crown winners was mentioned to Colorado Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzales, prompting him to smile and shake his head no.
"No time to think about that,’’ Gonzalez said.
Ditto first baseman Joey Votto of Cincinnati and Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals.
The season is winding down and the three of them have legitimate shots at becoming the first Triple Crown winner since Carl Yastrzemski of Boston in 1967 and the first NL Triple Crown winner since Joe Medwick with the 1937 St. Louis Cardinals.
None of them, however, can afford to focus on the individual accomplishment as each is a key part of a team in a battle to claim a spot in baseball’s postseason.
And that is a benefit for each of them in their Triple Crown ambitions.
"It helps a lot," said Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker. "As athletes we are trained to win. It’s easier for a player on a team in a pennant race to play for a team than for himself. You don’t see guys sitting down when their team is in the hunt.
"These guys can’t afford to sit down. They are too anxious to play because of what’s at stake for their team. You wake up and can’t wait to come to the park and see what the next day brings.’’
A decade ago, Rockies first baseman Todd Helton flirted with hitting .400, which became a focal point on a team that was en route to a fourth-place finish in the five-team NL West.
"There’s no doubt that the pennant race changes the focus of the players (in the Triple Crown hunt),’’ Helton said. "Their focus is on winning a game each night. We were 20 games out and eliminated from any postseason hope.
"The team comes first at all times. But to be honest, when you are out of it, there has to be a little selfishness. It’s what keeps you pushing in the final days of a season like that.’’
There’s no need for Gonzalez, Votto and Pujols to create artificial goals.
While Votto’s Reds are five games ahead of Pujols and the Cardinals in the NL Central, the fact that the Reds have suffered through nine consecutive losing seasons and haven’t been to the postseason in 15 years keeps Cincinnati from getting too comfortable.
The Rockies, who had late-season surges into the postseason in 2007 and 2009, have suddenly surfaced again in both the NL West race and NL wild-card race, 3 1/2 games back in both. The Cardinals have fallen two games back of the Rockies in the wild card, which has Atlanta sitting in the top spot, one game ahead of San Francisco.
For the fans and the media, however, there is a fascination with Triple Crown possibilities that even postseason battles can’t obscure.
A Triple Crown is arguably the most difficult accomplishment in baseball.
It has, after all, happened only 13 times in the modern era, which dates back to 1901. And only four of those Triple Crowns have been in the National League — Rogers Hornsby with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1922 and 1925, Chuck Klein with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1933 and Medwick with the Cards in 1937.
Is that drought about to end?
Gonzalez leads the NL in hitting (.337), is tied for first in RBI (100) and tied for third in home runs with 32, five behind Pujols. Pujols, however, is sixth in average (.312) after the worst slump of his big-league career, and third in RBI (99). Votto is second in average (.323) and tied for first in RBI (100), and tied for third in homers (32) with Gonzalez and Mark Reynolds of Arizona.
"Car-Go’s going to win the batting title,’’ Helton said of teammate Gonzalez. "The question is the home runs. ... But then there’s a reason there hasn’t been a Triple Crown winner since 1937. It’s not easy.’’
Dick Allen did come close in 1972, but was 10 points shy of a battling title, and 20 years later, Gary Sheffield came within two home runs and nine RBI of a Triple Crown.
There are plenty of theories on why the Triple Crown has become so elusive.
The most sensible is that, thanks to expansion, there are so many more candidates today than there were 43 or 73 years ago.
Consider that all four of the NL Triple Crowns and seven of the nine AL Triple Crowns came when there were eight teams in each league. The two most recent AL winners — Frank Robinson with Baltimore in 1966 and Yastrzemski the following year — came when the AL had 10 members.
The NL now has 16 teams, twice as many as when Medwick led the NL in average, home runs and RBI in 1937.
The AL now has 14 teams, six more than when the first seven AL Triple Crowns were won, and four more than when Robinson and Yastrzemski had their back-to-back success. What’s more, the AL added the designated hitter in 1973, which added players in each of the 14 AL lineups whose only purpose is to have an offensive impact.
Officially, Gonzalez and Votto rank 1-2 in the NL batting title race, but Omar Infante is lurking. Infante, now playing second base in Atlanta, is hitting .341, four points higher than Gonzalez, but is a handful of plate appearances shy of the 3.1-per-team’s game required for a player to qualify for a batting title.
Infante was a utility player with the Braves most of the season but figures to have the necessary plate appearances to qualify by season’s end in light of the fact that a month ago, when third baseman Chipper Jones was sidelined for season because of a knee injury, Infante became an everyday member of the Braves’ lineup.
Jones is pulling for his teammate and raised some eyebrows when he seemed to question the legitimacy of Gonzalez’s batting title aspirations because of Coors Field.
"If (Gonzalez) is 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?’’
Actually, Gonzalez is hitting .387 at Coors Field with 25 home runs and 66 RBI.
Jones blames Coors Field for his second-place finish in the NL batting race in 2007, when he hit .337 and Matt Holliday hit .340 with the Rockies.
Can we call it a convenient memory? Jones did win the 2008 NL batting title, and he did not apologize that year for the fact that he hit .399 at Turner Field and .325 on the road to beat out Pujols for the batting title. Infante, it should be noted, is hitting .376 at Turner Field compared to .317 on the road.
But that shouldn’t be a surprise. Sitting in the visitor's dugout at Tiger Stadium prior to Game 3 of the 1984 ALCS, George Brett was asked what he thought he might have done had he spent his career in Tiger Stadium with its right-field porch that was so inviting for left-handed hitters instead of spacious Royal Stadium.
"I’d probably have had a Darrell Evans type of career, hitting 40, 45 home runs a year with a .260 average,’’ he said. "The reason I became the type of hitter I am is because of Royals Stadium. As a hitter, you adjust to your home park to take advantage of what it has to offer. Remember, you play 81 games a year, half your schedule, in that park."
One of the more surprising parts of Gonzalez’s season is that he has 100 RBI despite having started 44 games as a leadoff hitter. He had 22 RBI in those 44 starts. He has driven in 78 runs in 77 starts in which he has hit second. Votto has hit third in all 128 games in which he started, and Pujols has hit either third (131 games) or fourth (five games) in his 135 starts.
When Philadelphia left-hander Jamie Moyer suffered a sprained left elbow on July 27, the assumption was his career had finally come to an end. Moyer, however, isn’t buying that idea. He is currently in a throwing program and has a goal of being able to pitch in a game by season’s end.
"I know I won’t be able to start, but I would like to think I could offer something out of the bullpen,’’ he said. "I’d like to show that I am healthy and open the door for next spring.’’
That’s right. Moyer, who will turn 48 on Nov. 17, is not in a hurry to retire. One of only three pitchers in major league history to win 100 games after turning 40, the sixth-oldest pitcher in major league history and one of only eight pitchers to have started a game in four different decades, he would like to add another chapter to his legacy in 2011.
John Lindsey made his big-league debut with the Dodgers on Wednesday without actually getting to be a part of the game. He was announced as a pinch-hitter but when the San Diego Padres changed pitchers, Dodgers manager Joe Torre called Lindsey back and instead used Andre Ethier in the pinch-hit role. Ethier grounded into a game-ending double play.
"I just gave him the lineup card,’’ Torre said. "I told him that he didn't get an at-bat, but he was in the game.’’
Just being on a big-league roster is a tribute to Lindsey. The call-up by the Dodgers came after he spent 16 seasons in the minor leagues. And it was a challenging 16 years. The first baseman was the 13th-round draft choice of the Colorado Rockies in 1995, the same year that the Rockies used a first-round pick on Todd Helton.
He spent seven years in the Rockies organization, all at the Single-A level. After debuting in 1995 in the Arizona Summer League, and spending 1996 in the short-season Northwest League, he played at low-A Asheville in 1997 and 1998, and then spent three years at High-A Salem.
Signed in 2002 by Seattle, he finally reached the Double-A level in 2003, and got to Triple-A for the first time with the Dodgers’ affiliate, which was in Las Vegas at the time, in 2007, his 13th professional season.