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Hamilton's rampage, Pujols' collapse set stage for changing of guard

| Sunday, May 13, 2012, 12:21 a.m.

ARLINGTON, Texas — Ever since Honus Wagner and Ty Cobb clashed in Pittsburgh for the 1909 World Series, there almost always has been a Splendid Splinter to rival every Joltin' Joe. A Mays for every Mantle. Even when Mark McGwire was injecting himself into the great home-run chase, he had a swingman in Sammy Sosa.

Really, has anyone beyond the Babe ever stood alone above the game?

Baseball is played in threes but celebrated in twos. Two pennants, two MVPs, two Cy Youngs and so on. In the NFL, there's never room for two best quarterbacks. In the NHL, there's never an end to debates of Sidney Crosby vs. flavor of the month. Baseball, maybe because of its two parallel worlds, has never felt the need to anoint that one best player.

Today?

Albert Pujols has been the planet's best — and yes, purest — hitter over the past decade. But he's a shadow of himself these days, batting .195 with a solitary home run and 11 RBI in his first 33 games since signing the $250 million mega-deal to join the Los Angeles Angels. On this soggy Saturday at The Ballpark in Arlington, where only months earlier he was carrying his St. Louis Cardinals to World Series glory, he singled and walked — his first since April 25 — but mostly grimaced.

The big man looks mortal, if not mortally wounded.

Across the diamond, Josh Hamilton was enjoying what some are calling one of the greatest weeks any athlete in a team sport has experienced.

He swatted his 18th home run off a 2-2 C.J. Wilson curve into the right-field grandstand, raising his average to .402 and his RBI total to 41, all figures leading Major League Baseball.

Nine of the home runs have come in the past six games, and four came in one magical night Tuesday in Baltimore, a feat only 15 before him had achieved.

Only one player before Hamilton, Cy Williams in 1923, has had as many as 18 home runs in his team's first 34 games.

For further perspective, the Pirates as a team have 24 home runs … in 936 additional at-bats.

Small wonder the superlatives were spilling over yesterday in the Rangers' clubhouse.

“We have a lot of baseball left to play, and let me say that first,” Texas outfielder David Murphy said, raising a cautious finger. “But this feels … historical. I don't think I even want to put this out there, but this has the makings of being one of the greatest seasons of all time. That's how it feels to me.”

It also might feel like a changing of the guard, particularly with Hamilton and Pujols sharing a field this weekend.

But, as ever, the challengers to Pujols are coming in a pair:

Hamilton is solidifying his status, while the Dodgers' Matt Kemp is off to a second consecutive sensational summer at .375 with 12 home runs and 27 RBI.

And don't forget Jose Bautista — as if anyone in Pittsburgh could — despite his .186 average. He's got seven home runs and undoubtedly many more on the way.

For now, though, the buzz of baseball is the toast of Texas.

“Josh just has tremendous talent,” Rangers manager Ron Washington said. “He's a joy to watch.”

“He's the best athlete in baseball,” outfielder Nelson Cruz said. “We're seeing something special.”

Indeed, Hamilton is performing at an athletic level seldom seen in the sport, like a fully baseball-developed Bo Jackson.

He's a physical freak. He's driving the ball to the opposite field with authority that most mortals can't dream about in pulling the ball. He's gliding across center field with a fluidity that defies his thick 6-foot-4, 240-pound frame.

As catcher Mike Napoli said, “He makes it look easy.”

Maybe it is.

“The game's kind of slowing down for me lately,” Hamilton said. “It's just fun to be out here playing, man. I just enjoy it so much. You're going to go through good times and bad times. You just try not to get too high or too low.”

Hamilton's lows have been plenty deep and plenty publicized. A car accident derailed the early part of his career, and drug and alcohol addiction sent it careening further.

He rebounded to become the American League MVP in 2010 but had a relapse shortly before this season.

That might explain Washington's assessment of Hamilton's performance right now: “All you're seeing is what he's like when he's healthy. That's it.”

“Understanding that what I'm doing and what God's allowed me to do coming back from everything I went through and allowing me to play the game at the level I play it, it's pretty amazing to think about,” Hamilton said.

“It's easy for me to focus on exactly what is in front of me. Every day I think how can I be the best that I can be that night.”

That was Pujols' realm, as recently as last year.

He's 32 now but essentially starting over with the Angels. And it's gone poorly enough that he's been booed in Anaheim and, far more surprising, a bust in the batter's box. His trademark patience has left him, as has the power.

Maybe a return trip to PNC Park, the road venue Pujols dominated like no other with a .376 average and 29 home runs, would do the trick?

“Ha!” Pujols replied. “Oh, man. I loved that place. I always liked playing there. There and Arizona, where the ball carries. Plus, what a beautiful park. And with the city right there … just beautiful.”

If that sounds like a player longing for the National League, that might not be far off.

He has stayed in regular touch with Tony La Russa, his manager in St. Louis, and several of his former Cardinals teammates. They were the ones who propped him up during the rare down times.

Now, even with the unimaginable wealth, he's never looked more down.

“I'll be fine,” Pujols insisted. “I know what I'm capable of doing.”

He looked down at the bat he was clutching.

“I just need to get this going.”

History suggests Pujols and Hamilton will again have something in common before long.

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