Pujols wins closest NL batting race, Mueller wins AL title |

Pujols wins closest NL batting race, Mueller wins AL title

The Associated Press

Albert Pujols won his first NL batting title Sunday, beating out Todd Helton in the closest race in league history, and Bill Mueller edged teammate Manny Ramirez and Derek Jeter for the AL crown.

In a season in which power statistics declined for the premier sluggers, Alex Rodriguez and Jim Thome finished in a tie for the major-league home-run lead with 47.

Pujols went 2 for 5, as St. Louis won, 9-5, at Arizona to win the NL title at .3587. Playing at the same time, Helton was 2 for 4 with a walk as Colorado won, 10-8, at San Diego and finished at .3585.

Just after Pujols struck out in the eighth inning at Phoenix, Helton had a chance to move ahead in the eighth inning at San Diego. But with a runner on second and a 3-0 count, catcher Gary Bennett called for an intentional walk.

The .00022 difference was the third-tightest in major-league history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

In 1945, the Yankees’ Snuffy Stirnweiss beat Tony Cuccinello of the White Sox by .00009, and in 1949 Detroit’s George Kell edged Boston’s Ted Williams by .00016.

Previously, the closest NL race was a .00028 difference in 1931, when Chick Hafey of St. Louis beat Bill Terry of the New York Giants.

Pujols also led the NL with 212 hits and 51 doubles.

Mueller began the day one point ahead of Jeter and two ahead of Ramirez, and the Red Sox didn’t start either of them at Tampa Bay.

After Jeter went 0 for 3 against Baltimore and came out of the game with a .324 average, Mueller grounded into a forceout as a pinch-hitter and finished at .326.

Ramirez, who didn’t play, wound up at .325.

“My foundation has always been to be one of 25 guys,” Mueller said. “Personal things don’t motivate me as much getting into the playoffs and possibly winning a World Series.”

Rodriguez and Thome finished with the lowest leading home-run total in a non-strike season since 1993, when Barry Bonds and Juan Gonzalez each hit 46.

Florida’s Juan Pierre led the major leagues with 65 steals, and Tampa Bay’s Carl Crawford led the AL with 55.

The Yankees’ Alfonso Soriano hit a record 13 homers leading off the first inning, one more than Brady Anderson’s total for Baltimore in 1996.

Toronto’s Roy Halladay led the AL in wins with a 22-7 record, while Atlanta’s Russ Ortiz led the NL at 21-7.

Boston’s Pedro Martinez (2.22) led the major leagues in ERA for the second straight season and fourth time in five years. San Francisco’s Jason Schmidt (2.34) led the NL for the first time.

Chicago’s Kerry Wood led the major leagues in strikeouts for the first time with 266 and Esteban Loaiza of the White Sox led the AL in strikeouts for the first time with 207, striking out eight Sunday to finish one ahead of Martinez.

Both leagues had first-time saves leaders. Eric Gagne of the Dodgers had 55, two shy of Bobby Thigpen’s major-league record, and Oakland’s Keith Foulke led the AL with 43.

Larkin re-signs

Six days after Barry Larkin turned down a take-it-or-leave it offer, the Cincinnati Reds re-signed their captain for 2004.

Larkin and Reds chief operating officer John Allen met yesterday, and they agreed to a $700,000, one-year contract that allows the shortstop to earn an additional $300,000 in performance bonuses.

“I’ve said all along that I wanted to be a member of the Cincinnati Reds,” said Larkin, who has spent his entire 18-year major-league career with Cincinnati.

Schilling open

Curt Schilling is willing to listen if the Arizona Diamondbacks want to trade him, but any deal must come in the offseason.

“During the season is the time to concentrate and focus on your job,” Schilling said, “and that stuff is not part of the job. That’s what the winter is for.”

Schilling has one more year left on his contract with Arizona, and is scheduled to earn $12 million, half of it deferred.

With the Diamondbacks loaded with deferred contracts and looking to cut payroll, Schilling said he’s known for some time that the team won’t be able to re-sign him. Therefore, he expects next season to be his last for the Diamondbacks.

“Probably last winter I started to understand how it was going to be,” he said.

Wood gets start

Kerry Wood will start Tuesday for the Chicago Cubs in their playoff opener in Atlanta against the Braves.

Wood (14-11) will be making his second postseason appearance.

In 1998, when Wood was the NL Rookie of the Year, Wood started Game 3 of the division series and was the loser. He gave up a run and three hits in five innings, as the Braves won, 6-2, to sweep that series.

Wagner on block?

Astros closer Billy Wagner expects to be traded before next season because he thinks owner Drayton McLane wants to reduce the team’s payroll.

Wagner has one season remaining on a three-year deal that pays him $24 million and is due $9 million for next season. Richard Hidalgo is due $12 million next season in the final year of his contract, and Wagner thinks the two big contracts will force general manager Gerry Hunsicker to make trades.

“I think it will happen, I really do,” Wagner said. “Gerry’s got his hands tied with this whole budget for salaries. We’re just in a wanting-to-compete situation, it’s not a get-better situation.”

Bordick to retire

Shortstop Mike Bordick is retiring after 13 years in the major leagues, saying he’s “99.9 percent” sure he won’t play again.

“I think it’s kind of faltering,” the 38-year-old Bordick said of his skills. “I’d hate to sign on with somebody and not be able to give what I can.”

Bordick thought about retiring after last season, but said Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi persuaded him to sign with the Blue Jays. Ricciardi signed Bordick to his first professional contract in 1986.

Cubs retire Santo’s No. 10

Ron Santo got the ultimate honor the Chicago Cubs bestow on a former player when his No. 10 was retired before the season finale.

One day after the Cubs won the NL Central, the popular Santo was recognized for his achievements.

“I thought I had to get into the Hall of Fame to have this done, because this flag hanging there down the left-field line means more to me than the Hall of Fame,” Santo told a cheering crowd at Wrigley Field.

“This couldn’t be any better. With the adversity that I have been through if it wasn’t for all of you, I wouldn’t be standing here right now.”

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