MVP Race Coming Down To The Wire

Since the inception of the MVP award in 1931, only six times has a player led his league by at least 10 homers and at least 15 RBI in the same season: Jim Rice in 1978, George Foster in 1977, Ernie Banks in 1958, Bill Nicholson in 1943 and Jimmie Foxx in 1932 and '33.

Only Nicholson didn't win an MVP award. But there was a reason for that: He was a Cub. OK, the more technical reason was that his team finished 30½ games back of MVP winner Stan Musial's Cardinals that year. But you get the idea.

The Phillies, however, aren't having a year like that. They've made it through Labor Day without getting eliminated. So these are no empty numbers on Howard's stat sheet. These are going to be 60 home runs that mean something.

But even if we assume he's 100 percent clean -- and there's no reason to assume otherwise -- Howard still could pay an indirect price for other people's crimes in the Steroid Era. How? Because nowadays, it's clear that 50-homer seasons, and even 60-homer seasons, aren't what they used to be.

Once, those were round numbers that practically came with MVP-or-your-money-back guarantees. Not anymore.

Of the 19 50-homer seasons before this one in the wild-card era, guess how many of them turned into MVP awards? How about three: Barry Bonds in his 73-bomb 2001 season, Sammy Sosa in his 66-homer 1998 season and Junior Griffey in his 56-trot 1997 season.

But it's those 16 other 50-homer guys, the ones who didn't win, who suggest that this year's MVP race may still be up for debate. Six of those 16 failed to win even though their team made the playoffs. Five of those 16 led the league in homers and RBI -- including Andruw Jones just last year, for a first-place team -- and still didn't win.

And even more amazing, four of those 16 were non-MVPs in seasons when they hit 60 home runs or more -- Mark McGwire in 1998 (70) and 1999 (65), and Sosa in 1999 (63) and 2001 (64). Heck, McGwire led the league in homers and RBI in '99, and still finished fifth in the MVP voting. And remember, there were no steroid debates coloring those MVP elections.

So what are we telling you? We're telling you this NL MVP race isn't over, especially when the cases for each candidate seem to grow more compelling every day.

The case for Ryan Howard

• The reincarnation factor: Do you believe in miracles? The Phillies pronounced themselves dead in late July. Then Howard unpronounced them. Since July 24, the Phillies are 28-20. And -- in an apparently related development -- Howard has hit .376 in that run, with 25 homers, 60 RBI, an insane .855 slugging percentage and a Barry-esque .516 on-base percentage. Nobody in the National League is within 10 homers, 14 RBI, .180 slugging points or .065 OBP points of him. And he has never, at any point, gone more than three games without a home run or an RBI. • The game-changing factor: Of Howard's 56 home runs, half of them have either tied games or given the Phillies the lead. Even if you throw out the game-tying homers, an impressive 41 percent (23 of the 56) of his home runs have put the Phillies ahead. For the record, though, Pujols has done even better. Of his 45 homers, 21 (or 47 percent) have given the Cardinals a lead, and two more have tied a game. Which means an incredible 51 percent have resulted in a tie or a lead.

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