As the final days of the 2006 National League campaign neared, the battle for the game’s two highest-profile individual awards, the Most Valuable Player Award and the Cy Young Award, seemed to narrow to a pair of two-horse races.
In both cases, the St. Louis Cardinals’ Albert Pujols and Chris Carpenter remained in the thick of consideration in their respective MVP and Cy Young races to repeat their 2005 wins.
However, their two most viable competitors have not wilted, either. Arizona’s Brandon Webb and Philadelphia’s Ryan Howard have posted impressive 2006 seasons.
Can Webb, the NL ERA leader at 2.88, take the award? Statistically, he has a slight edge in wins/losses and ERA compared to Carpenter. In addition, matters have been complicated by the late-season push of the Houston Astros. Their pitching leader, Roy Oswalt, has equaled Webb’ record and bested Carpenter in ERA.
The argument of whether these awards should go to players on teams not making the playoffs has been debated time and time again. Certainly when a player’s contributions are head and shoulders above others, it could make sense.
The classic example occurred two years ago, when Randy Johnson’s 290 strikeouts almost propelled him to the 2004 Cy Young despite a 16-14 record for a truly-awful 111-loss Diamondbacks squad.
But, that head and shoulders case clearly isn’t there in 2006.
As noted above, both Carpenter and Oswalt have very comparable stats and their clubs remain in playoff contention until the final day of the season. On the other hand, with a loss Sunday, Webb’s Diamondbacks will again finish in last place in the National League West, albeit with more wins than in 2004, but still in last.
Of the three, only Webb will apparently be pitching Sunday, as he starts against the San Diego Padres at home in a game that has NLDS home field implications for the Padres. So, the 27-year-old right-hander has one more chance to stake his claim.
Originally, Carpenter was scheduled to start the final game of the season, too. However, those plans seemed to have changed since Sunday is no longer an elimination game for St. Louis. In fact, for the Cardinals’ season to end prior to the NLDS, they would have to lose Sunday, a make-up game on Monday against the Giants and on Tuesday in an elimination game against the Astros.
And with a short, five-game NLDS likely facing them, and a very thin starting pitching staff, it is easy to understand from a team perspective why Carpenter was set aside, either for Game One of the NLDS or the elimination game, if needed.
Yet, wouldn’t it be fitting if Carpenter could not only end the regular season on Sunday, but do it in style, springing back into the front of the Cy Young Award race? Webb has that chance, but because his team could not seal the NL Central race, Carpenter’s opportunity seems to have been taken from him.
One could make a strong case that Manager Tony La Russa allowed Carpenter’s candidacy to take the fatal blows, not by bypassing him for Sunday’s start, but instead when he left an obviously-gassed Carp in the game during his last two outings long enough to be charged with six runs each time.
Prior to those two straight losses, Carpenter had lost only once in 57 starts dating back to August 2001 when he had a lead of three or more runs. That is not only a statement about Carpenter. It also indicates his bullpen was there for him when needed in the past.
Or, maybe General Manager Walt Jocketty should share some of the responsibility with La Russa for assembling such an unreliable bullpen that even with ten men out there to choose from, none were considered dependable enough to be called upon with the game on the line.
Either way, Webb has his chance Sunday. Carpenter won’t. He may have to wait until Tuesday and beyond to push all his chips into the center of the table in a lower-odds attempt to claim something much bigger and far more elusive – a World Championship.
Otherwise, we’ll be left to wonder a dozen “what ifs”.
Albert Pujols’ case is a bit clearer. Yet, he has his own “what ifs”. What if Pujols hadn’t strained his oblique and missed more than two weeks of play right when he was in arguably the hottest stretch of his storied career?
Still, there can be no argument that Pujols has been the biggest difference-maker between the Cardinals making and missing the playoffs.
19 of Pujols’ home runs this season have accounted for game-winning RBI, the highest single-season total since Willie Mays also had 19 in 1962 in data that goes back to 1957.
Pujols has come on when it matters most. His three-run home run Wednesday that propelled the Cards to a 4-2 win over the Padres was his major-league high 23rd go-ahead home run of the season. In the last month, he is hitting .368 with nine home runs and 27 RBI.
Pujols has been consistently excellent. He has posted career-high totals in both home runs and RBI with 48 and 136, respectively this season. In fact, the 136 RBI ranks in the top ten on the Cards’ all-time single season RBI list.
Defensively, Pujols has proven his mettle playing Gold-Glove caliber first base. On the other hand, Howard has a stone glove. His total of 14 errors is near the bottom of all NL first sackers, as is his zone rating and range factor.
Yes, Howard leads the league in both home runs and RBI, and took over the role as his team’s leader when Bobby Abreu was traded mid-season. He also has struck out a whopping 181 times this season, second-most in all of Major League Baseball.
When all is said and done, his Phillies club will be at home in October while Pujols’ likely carried his team into the playoffs once again.
Sure, Alex Rodriguez won the MVP for a 2003 Texas Rangers team that finished in last place, 20 games under .500. But, he wasn’t competing with Albert Pujols for the award.
Perhaps Pujols can make one more statement on Sunday in what may be the Cardinals’ final regular season game as to his worthiness for the 2006 Most Valuable Player Award. He will be squarely in the national spotlight, while Howard will be playing a meaningless game in front of a few thousand bored Floridians.
It seems most fitting.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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