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Out of limelight, two sluggers keep building their MVP cases

By EDUARDO A. ENCINA
Published September 24, 2006


Even though much of the talk about the AL MVP recently has centered around Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter and Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz, a pair of small-market stars warrant just as much consideration.

Ortiz drew national attention two weeks ago for singling out Jeter and saying the Yankees lineup would be just as potent without him. The theory has merit. Still, if that's what the MVP is truly supposed to award, then Minnesota first baseman Justin Morneau and Oakland DH Frank Thomas might deserve the honor more for leading lineups to the playoffs that aren't built on big bucks like New York's and Boston's.

Morneau, who led the Twins' surge toward the AL Central title, is a dark horse because teammates Joe Mauer and Johan Santana could garner votes. Morneau's numbers - .325 average, 33 homers and 125 RBIs - stack up against the best all-around seasons in baseball.

"When you get a couple guys on a team that are having the years that (Morneau and Santana) are, they might split votes," Mauer said. "I know he gets my vote. What he's done this year is pretty amazing. He's a big part of why we're doing so well."

Then there's Thomas, the A's designated hitter who has all but wrapped up the comeback player honors. The 38-year-old, who is batting .272 with 38 homers and 107 RBIs, added the power to the heart of a lineup that's usually relied on situational hitting to score.

Oakland's offense hardly matches up with others heading to the playoffs, at or near the bottom in batting average, slugging percentage, total bases, extra-base hits and hitting with runners in scoring position.

"You take Frank out of our lineup, who knows?" A's third baseman Eric Chavez said. "It's kind of scary thinking about it. He's meant everything to us down the stretch."

NOT THAT LIKELY: The power-deprived Dodgers, who rank second to last in the National League in home runs, were the least likely candidates to stage their memorable comeback win against San Diego on Monday night.

Still, the Dodgers hit four consecutive homers in the ninth, the last two coming off closer Trevor Hoffman, to send the game to extra innings. The next inning, with L.A. trailing by one, Nomar Garciaparra took Rudy Seanez's fastball to left for a two-run homer and an 11-10 win. It was the Dodgers' seventh homer on the night.

"It was as if we weren't meant to win the game, no matter what," Seanez said. "We could have been ahead by six and probably would have lost. Other forces were at work."

Dr. Jim Lackritz, associate dean for academic affairs in the College of Business Administration at San Diego State and an instructor in statistics at the school, said that assuming independent random occurrences, the probability of four consecutive homers was 3.3-million to 1.

FIGHTIN' PHILS: If the surging Phillies, tied with the Dodgers in the NL wild-card race going into L.A.'s late game, claim the playoff spot, they'll have to win on the road if they want to go deep into the postseason. They won't have homefield advantage in any series they play.

That's not a bad thing. Philadelphia is barely above .500 at Citizens Bank Park (40-39). The Phillies are 41-34 on the road. They have two games left at home this season and six on the road.

Since baseball split into divisions in 1969, only one team, - the 2001 Braves - had a losing record at home and made it to the playoffs. Atlanta was 40-41 at Turner Field that season.

MARKET VALUE: Oakland's Barry Zito is one of the top free-agent pitching prospects this offseason. Zito is discounting a recent report that neither the Mets nor Yankees was interested in signing him.

"It's like in fantasy football," Zito said. "I picked up Brett Favre and another owner is dying to get him but he's not coming up to me and saying, 'I want Brett Favre.' He's saying, 'I don't want Brett Favre, whatever.' So I'm making some offers elsewhere."

NUMBERS GAME: The Rangers' Michael Young reached 200 hits for the fourth consecutive season, becoming the first middle infielder to accomplish the feat since Charlie Gehringer, who had a five-year streak from 1933-37. ... Brewers reliever Derek Turnbow has a 13.50 ERA since making the All-Star team in July, losing the closer's job mostly because of control problems. ... Of the 21 homers Tigers starter Justin Verlander has allowed, 10 were to the White Sox. ... The Royals entered Saturday 9-9 in September. They are seeking their first winning September in 10 years.

QUOTABLE: Twins manager Ron Gardenhire on the mysterious pop Francisco Liriano felt in his arm that led to Minnesota shelving the pitcher for the rest of the season: "Does he really know what a pop is? If he's throwing the ball 100 miles per hour, something's going to pop most of the time. Mostly eyeballs." ... "Everybody deserves a nice souvenir." Padres pitcher David Wells on flipping his glove 30 feet in the air and into the stands while leaving Wednesday's game. ... "Knowing that you have professional players behind you who are going to bust their humps for you, win or lose. I've got to respect that." Pitcher Jamie Moyer on playing for the Phillies and possibly taking a stab at his former teammates in Seattle.

MISCELLANY: Nearly 1,000 disgruntled Orioles fans staged a walkout during Thursday's game against Detroit. The fans wore black T-shirts that read, "Free the Birds." The protest was aimed at owner Peter Angelos. The O's will have their club-record ninth straight losing season. ... Mike Lieberthal believes his Phillies career is nearly over because he has heard GM Pat Gillick say on the radio that the Phillies will go with young catchers Chris Coste and Carlos Ruiz. ... Because a dislocated toe in his fight foot has kept him off the field, Reds outfielder Ken Griffey's season is likely over. He was injured Sept. 4 hitting the wall while chasing a Barry Bonds fly ball. ... Outfielder Kevin Mench has slumped so badly - hitting .212 with one homer and 14 RBIs in 35 games since coming from the Rangers - that the Brewers don't know what role he will play next year.