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Only longevity separates Pujols, Votto

Only longevity separates Pujols, Votto

ST. LOUIS -- Taken on the merits of their 2010 seasons, very little separates Albert Pujols and Joey Votto, save for eight games in the standings.

They are the leading candidates to be the National League's Most Valuable Player this year. Each still has a shot at winning the NL's first Triple Crown in 73 years. They're both high-average power hitters with excellent strike zones and plus defenders at first base.

And their clubs will go head-to-head this weekend in a rivalry series, one that could serve as a coronation for Votto's Reds or a last stand for Pujols' Cardinals. Cincinnati leads St. Louis by eight games in the NL Central, and the teams will be playing their final three head-to-head games of the year at Busch Stadium.

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So the difference, aside from those eight games, is history. Pujols has mountains of it. Votto doesn't, not yet at least.

In much of the sports world, time is perceived in the smallest possible scales. It matters not what you did even a year ago if you're not doing it right now. A great season in the NFL can get you rated as the game's best at your position. Baseball is different. In baseball, time often seems positively geologic.

So while Votto has been doing his best Pujols impersonation for the past four months, there are still those who want to see him keep doing it. Even his own teammates.

"He's obviously having a great year," said Jim Edmonds, currently Votto's teammate in Cincinnati and a teammate of Pujols' for seven years in St. Louis. "He's been very consistent, but I'm not sure you can compare him with Albert, because Albert's already had such a great career. It's hard to compare. It's a great comparison, if you guys [reporters] want to dare to make it."

In the here and now, though, they're separated by about a hair's breadth.

Pujols holds the NL lead with 35 home runs and 292 total bases, and he's second in runs with 92. He also rates ahead of Votto in hits, doubles and walks, and has fewer strikeouts. Votto tops the league in RBIs and on-base percentage, and he's second in slugging percentage. Votto has the batting average edge, though they both trail Colorado's Carlos Gonzalez, and Omar Infante could soon have enough plate appearances to top all of them.

Both have talked down Triple Crown discussions, and the number of challengers means that it will be exceedingly difficult for either to win it. Votto admitted in August that he's keeping an eye on Pujols, while Pujols has said he's focusing strictly on his own job.

"If we watch the Cardinals and I see what Albert is doing, I can't help [noticing] that," Votto said recently. "In general, I'm not checking my stats. I'm trying to make sure I'm in line with what I think I can do and do the best I can. If it runs past me, if we have stats on the table, other than that I'm not chasing it."

Said Pujols: "It's something that you can't get caught up in. It's something that's really hard to do. Is it possible to do? Yes. But you have to look at the last day after the season and see where you're at. Because it's something that I don't want to think about. I don't want to put that pressure on me."

Whether there's a Triple Crown in 2010, there's little doubt these are the top two players in their league this year. They also happen to play the same position for teams competing for the same playoff spot. When it comes to talk of the NL Most Valuable Player award, which Pujols has won three times, the conversation turns a bit ... ethereal. It can be difficult to differentiate between the two players' performances between the lines, and their relative offensive value changes from week to week.

What may determine the winner, then, is what happens around them. If either were to win the Triple Crown, of course, that would likely be moot. But given the difficulty of either hitter eclipsing the other -- as well as Gonzalez, Infante, Adam Dunn, et al -- in all three categories, the players around them will likely have a heavy impact on the winner. As will perceptions of how the two players influenced the teammates around them.

Opinions will also vary by precinct. Scott Rolen, like Edmonds a former Pujols teammate and a current Votto teammate, sides with the man who hits in front of him for the Reds these days.

"I don't think there's any question," Rolen said. "I'm biased, but I'm happily biased. He's a gamer, and he's a good teammate and a good guy. He tries to do the right things and play the right way, including running the bases and playing in the field. He's just a tremendous baseball player."

Rolen knows a thing or two about defense, and it's one area where Votto has closed the gap. Pujols is a former Gold Glove winner, and by some accounts still the gold standard at first base. In 2010, though, the gap has closed. Fangraphs' Ultimate Zone Rating has Votto rated as a somewhat superior defender, while the Fielding Bible's plus-minus system has Pujols rated two plays better.

That has even caught Pujols' eye.

"He has worked hard on his defense and everything," Pujols said. "He's gotten so much better too at first base, not just at the plate with the approach and adjustments."

But if there's one area where Votto has most resembled Pujols, it's his stunningly consistent success this year. With the exception of a merely very good April, Votto has raked in every month of 2010. From May through August, he never hit lower than .314 in a month, never had an on-base percentage lower than .412 or a slugging percentage lower than .600.

For Pujols, meanwhile, it's been an unusually up-and-down year. He batted below .300 in three different months, slugged below .550 in three different months and even had an un-Pujols-like .333 OBP in July. But when he's been good, he's been unstoppable -- witness his spectacular April and August. In fact, Pujols was named the National League Player of the Month for August after batting .379 in 26 games.

Yet while Votto's surge coincided with a Reds run, the Cardinals couldn't get anything going around Pujols in August. They went 11-15 on the whole, their worst month of the season, and sport an ugly 5-13 record since leaving Great American Ball Park on Aug. 11.

"There's times, definitely with Joey, that have been pretty tough," said Astros manager Brad Mills, who has seen plenty of both men this year. "I know the one series here that he didn't play against us, it was nice not to have him in the lineup, but we really didn't have that much success against the ballclub. And then the other series he did some pretty good damage against us. We're still kind of searching a little bit to see exactly how we're going to approach him."

Pujols, a right-handed hitter, hits right- and left-handed pitching. So does Votto, a lefty. Votto vexes teams looking for a weakness, a hitch in his swing. Pujols, however, practically defines that trait. There just isn't a book on how to get him out.

"[Pujols] is the only one I can think of," said Kyle Lohse, now a Cardinal but a Spring Training teammate of Votto's when he was with the Reds. "There's guys that are hot when you face them, but not every time. I don't see anything on film. I don't think there's anybody like him. He makes adjustments, and you can't fool him. You're not going to consistently get him to do the same kind of stuff."

Starting Friday, they'll both be playing in a widely watched, heavily scrutinized series. Pujols has been there before, and it's a chance to reassert himself. For Votto, it's another biggest series of his young career. At least one of them will make more history this weekend.

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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