As Albert Pujols reclined on a folding chair in the visitors' clubhouse last week, the St. Louis Cardinals first baseman made small talk with teammate Pedro Feliz, thumbed text messages into his cell phone and played with his young son, bat boy Albert Jr.
Pujols' relaxed demeanor, though, belied the pressure the slugger is under as September approaches. Not only is his team chasing Cincinnati for the Central Division title and battling in the thick of the National League wild-card race, Pujols and his Reds counterpart, Joey Votto, are battling for the first batting Triple Crown in more than four decades and a chance to join greats such as Cobb, Hornsby, Foxx, Gehrig, Williams and Mantle in one of baseball's most exclusive clubs.
"I don't want to talk about it," Pujols said softly when the subject was broached before Thursday's series opener at Nationals Park. "That's not what I play for. If it happens, it happens."
But after fiddling with his mitt for a moment, Pujols reconsidered.
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"It's pretty special to have guys who have the ability to do it," he said. "You have to be consistent. If I get that chance, it will be an honor, an unbelievable accomplishment. You have to be on fire from Day One and stay healthy."
Just 14 players have led their league in batting average, runs batted in and home runs in the same season in the history of the major leagues, and no one's done it since 1967, the year Carl Yastrzemski batted .326, hit 44 home runs and drove in 121 runs for the Boston Red Sox. To find the last Triple Crown winner in the National League, you've got to go back another 30 years, to the Cardinals' Joe Medwick in 1937.
Through Friday, Pujols led the NL in home runs (35) and RBI (94) and was tied for second in batting average (.320) to Votto (.327). Votto was second in RBI (91) and tied for second in home runs (31) with Washington's Adam Dunn.
But a slump isn't all that that can derail the bids by Pujols and Votto. So could Atlanta's Omar Infante. The Braves infielder was batting .342 through Friday's games but did not have the requisite 502 plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. That, however, could change if Infante plays in each of the Braves' remaining games and averages 4.4 plate appearances per contest — difficult but not impossible.
"There's a reason it hasn't been done in 43 years," Dunn said. "For two guys to have a legitimate chance, and the fact that it's almost September, that's pretty amazing. They're both such good hitters, not only for average but for power, too."
Dunn also said he thinks the fact that the Cardinals and Reds are slugging it out for the division title will ensure that neither player takes a single at-bat lightly.
"It obviously helps a lot, that each game matters," Dunn added. "Both of those guys are their team's big gun, and if one of them falters, that might eliminate one from the race."
Pujols' reluctance to discuss the Triple Crown race has nothing to do with a jinx. Rather, he doesn't want the pursuit of an individual goal to overshadow the Cardinals' pursuit of a playoff berth.
"I don't want to get caught up in it," he said. "Right now, my main focus is about helping this ball club to win. I don't want to bring that distraction to my ball club."
The Cardinals trail the Reds by five games and are 21/2 games behind the Philadelphia Phillies for the wild card.
"We have too much to accomplish in the next few weeks here," Pujols said.
First basemen Joey Votto of the Cincinnati Reds and Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals are each within striking distance of becoming the National League's first Triple Crown winner in 73 years.
A Triple Crown in baseball constitutes leading the league in batting average, home runs and runs batted in.
The last player to win a Triple Crown was Carl Yastrzemski of the American League's Boston Red Sox in 1967. The last NL winner was Joe Medwick of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1937.
Here is how Votto and Pujols stood through Sunday's games:
Triple Crown watch