MVP Race Coming Down To The Wire

• The ferocious-finish factor: Since the All-Star break, Howard would be your basic Octuple Crown winner. He leads his league in batting, homers, RBI, walks, intentional walks, slugging, on-base percentage and total bases. And we haven't even mentioned his outrageous second-half OPS (on-base plus slugging) of 1.347. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that would be the highest second-half OPS in the entire division-play era (1969-2006) by any player not named Barry Bonds. Bonds topped 1.400 in 2001, '02 and '04. But no other player in that era has even reached 1.300. The closest was 1.267, by the ever-lovable Albert Belle in 1998.

• The four-fingers factor: As Howard's legend grows, the guys who manage against him have told us precisely how valuable they think he is -- by intentionally walking him in unimaginable situations. Among them: (1) Leading off the ninth inning of a tie game (against Houston); (2) with no outs and runners on first and second in the 14th inning of a tie game (against Cincinnati), to load the bases with nobody out; and (3) with first base occupied in the ninth inning of a one-run game (against Florida), to move the tying run into scoring position and put the winning run on base. Howard has now been intentionally walked eight times in his last 16 games. But while that might hurt his home run numbers, it might actually help his MVP credentials. "To me," said one scout, "that's saying he's more valuable, based on how the people in the other dugout act when he comes up."

At first glance, those credentials would seem to be enough, assuming the Phillies can stay in the wild-card race into the final few days. But hold on. Consider …

The case for Albert Pujols

• The I'm-in-he's-out factor: If the season ended right now, Pujols' team would be allowed to keep playing in October. Howard's team wouldn't. History tells us that matters more than ever in the wild-card era. Of the last 16 MVPs, 12 came from teams that made the playoffs. • The oblique factor: Is there any rational human who thinks the Cardinals would be in first place right now without Albert Pujols? They were 34-24 (a .630 winning percentage) -- the best record in the National League -- the day Pujols strained his right oblique muscle in June. They haven't been the same since (43-43). And while nobody says much about it, Pujols hasn't been anywhere near as healthy himself. Not that that has stopped him from hitting .333, with 20 homers (more than Jones or Jim Thome) and 55 RBI (more than Chase Utley or Paul Konerko) since he came back.

• The productivity factor: Pujols won an MVP award last year, but unless you've been watching "Dancing with the Stars" reruns all summer, you know he has been even more valuable to the Cardinals this year. Last season, Pujols was responsible for 16.5 percent of all the Cardinals' runs produced (in a season when they were third in the league in runs scored). This year, if you subtract his DL time, he has accounted for 17.2 percent of their runs produced (in a season in which they're just seventh in the league in runs scored).

• The RISP factor: Which player has gotten the bigger hits, Pujols or Howard? It isn't as clear-cut as Howard's RBI totals might make you think. Average with runners in scoring position: Pujols .389, Howard .248. Two outs, men in scoring position: Pujols .421, Howard .230. Two outs, runners anywhere on base: Pujols .359, Howard .227.

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