Rob Rains’ Inside Baseball: Historic Home Run Battle Brewing
While most of the attention from Cardinals fans the next six weeks will rightfully be focused on the team’s attempt to catch and pass the Brewers for the NL Central title, another more personal battle will be going on at the same time.
Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman, who have adjoining lockers in the Cardinals’ clubhouse, will be going head-to-head in a competition for the NL’s home run title. Pujols pulled into the lead on Sunday night with his 29th homer of the year, one more than Berkman and the Dodgers’ Matt Kemp, who hit his 28th homer on Sunday.
This is the first time in franchise history that the Cardinals have had the top two home run hitters in the league this late into the season. The last time a National League team finished the year with the first and second place home run hitters was 1965, when Willie Mays and Willie McCovey of the Giants accomplished the feat.
Pujols has led the league in home runs the last two seasons, and is trying to become the first Cardinal in history to lead the league in homers for three consecutive seasons. The only two St. Louis players who have won two home run titles in back-to-back seasons were Johnny Mize in 1939 and 1940 and Mark McGwire in 1998 and 1999.
The last hitter to win three consecutive home run crowns in the NL was Mike Schmidt of the Phillies from 1974 to 1976. Schmidt is the only player to complete the hat trick since Ralph Kiner of the Pirates won or tied for seven consecutive home run titles between 1946 and 1952.
With 29 homers on the season and just 41 games to play, Pujols is on a pace for 39 homers. Berkman, who has never led the league in homers in his career, is on pace to finish with 37 homers, meaning this could be the first year since 1992 that the home run title was won with less than 40 homers. Fred McGriff of the Padres led the league that year with 35 home runs. Dante Bichette of Colorado won the 1995 crown with 40 home runs.
This also could well be the sixth consecutive season the league-leading home run total fell from the previous year, starting with Ryan Howard’s total of 58 in 2006, down to 50 for Prince Fielder in 2007, 48 by Howard in 2008 and 47 and 42 from Pujols the last two years.
Berkman also has his sights set on breaking the Cardinals’ franchise record for most home runs by a switch-hitter, 35, set by Ripper Collins in 1934. He also is attempting to become the first outfielder, and non-first baseman, to lead the league since Andruw Jones did it for the Braves in 2005.
The closest the Cardinals have come to having the top two home run hitters in the league was in 1928, when Jim Bottomley and Hack Wilson of the Cubs tied for the title with 31 homers and Chick Hafey finished third with 27.
This year’s race will not just be between Pujols and Berkman, however. After Sunday’s games, six other players were within three homers of the two Cardinals and Kemp, who hit his 28th homer on Sunday. The group includes Fielder and Dan Uggla of the Braves with 27 homers; Howard of the Phillies, Mike Stanton of the Marlins and Jay Bruce of the Reds, all with 26 homers, and Justin Upton of the Diamondbacks with 25.
Only seven players in Cardinals history have led the league in homers. In addition to Pujols, McGwire, Mize and Bottomley, Joe Medwick tied for the title in 1937, Collins tied for the league lead in 1934 and Rogers Hornsby was the first Cardinal to do it, in 1922 and then again in 1925.
Both Pujols and Berkman also are climbing the ranks in career home run totals. Pujols is now at 437 for his career, one behind Andre Dawson fox 38th place on the all-time list. He is within 10 of passing Vladimir Guerrero and Chipper Jones, which would place him third among active players behind Alex Rodriguez and Jim Thome. Since the start of the 2001 season, Pujols has hit the same number of homers as Rodriguez for the most in the majors since that time, and Pujols’ total of 118 the last three years leads the major leagues.
Berkman now has 355 home runs and ranks fourth all-time for the most home runs hit by a switch-hitter. He is second among active players in that category, trailing Chipper Jones.
Rooting for both Pujols and Berkman to continue hitting home runs also could figure into the Cardinals’ attempt to chase down the Brewers. Sunday night’s win over Colorado improved the Cardinals’ record when they hit at least one home run to 49-29. They are 16-27 when they fail to hit a homer. Even better, the team’s record is 25-8 when they hit two or more home runs in a game.
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