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Votto, Pujols: Similar approach, similar numbers, similar success

Joey Votto and Albert Pujols are stubborn men. They are more willful than you are. They work harder than you do, they prepare more diligently. They own a form of relentlessness that's peculiar to great hitters.

You might fool them occasionally. This is baseball and it is hitting, and even great hitters are great only 30 percent of the time. You might think you've gotten the edge on them. You have not. They'll beat you. The only issue is when.

"Stubborn" is Jim Edmonds' word. He has played with each, with Pujols far longer, but he sees the same qualities in Votto. "He doesn't give at-bats away, same as Albert,'' Edmonds said. "Albert's Albert. His game is above and beyond everyone else's. He's going to do his job the same way, every day, no matter what is going on around him. It's a relentless approach (that) he learned from the guys around him. (Mark) McGwire was that way, Same place, same time. Every day.''

They can't be bothered. Not when they're working. Not for anything. Votto is fan- and media-friendly. He sees it as part of the business. Same with Pujols. But there is a routine and it must be honored. Getting extended time with Votto on game days is elusive, often futile. Extended time being more than about 30 seconds.

"I'm working,'' Votto says. "Baseball is my job. I wish I was having a better time out there, but I'm not. If I don't have that feeling of being completely prepared before a game, it affects my game.''

As for Pujols ... the Reds walked him intentionally Sunday, even as he was in the midst of a 1-for-18 slump. A decade of diligence, no sign of a drop-off.

They're first basemen, casually acquainted. They share an agent. When Votto was a rookie in 2007, Pujols gave him an impromptu fielding lesson -- before a game. "He was very gracious with his knowledge,'' Votto recalled last weekend.

They're joined at the bat handle, in a race for Best Hitter, National League. Votto will be the league's MVP. Unless it's Pujols. Their numbers are all but identical. Each has a puncher's chance at the Triple Crown, which hasn't been achieved in the National League since 1937.

Votto's Reds are very likely to win the NL Central. Pujols' St. Louis Cardinals are striving for October relevance. All things being equal, Votto is the NL MVP. All things are not. Pujols has meant more to the struggling Cardinals offense. Pujols has had a hand in 189 of St. Louis' 603 runs, 31 percent; Votto's numbers are 190 and 679, 28 percent. Pujols is a better defensive player.

Plus, as Edmonds said, Albert is Albert.

Regardless of who gets a trophy, the work gets noticed. To Votto and Pujols, the work is everything. "He's always been a great hitter and used the whole field,'' Pujols said of Votto. "Now he's patient and looking for his pitch. You have to keep grinding, and that's what I've seen.''

Votto had a 10-pitch, ninth-inning at-bat late last month against Jonathan Broxton, the gas-throwing, on again-off again closer for the Los Angeles Dodgers. It was a contest so compelling, it's posted on YouTube. The Reds led 3-2. The bases were loaded. Two were out. Broxton threw his first two pitches for strikes. Votto fouled off three of the next four pitches, taking a ball on the other, all fastballs. Broxton mixed in a slider, Votto took it: Ball two. Broxton tried another slider: Foul.

Broxton's ninth pitch was a 96 mph flamer: A fastball outside. Votto laid off. Full count, advantage Votto. The 10th pitch was a fastball, 96 mph again. Votto was sitting on it. Votto knew what the pitch would be. With the bases loaded, he was pretty sure where it would be. He lashed it to leftfield, a two-run single that gave the Reds a 5-2 cushion.

Votto is a technician. He didn't catch Broxton with a big left hand. He trapped Broxton on the ropes and delivered body shots. Ten pitches. Eight fastballs, all between 95 and 97 miles an hour. Two sliders, at 87 and 88. Chipping away, coming back from 0-2, grinding. Knowing what he knows.

There is a depth to Votto and Pujols, fueled by uncommon burdens. They know things most of us do not. Votto suffered panic attacks last June, after the death of his father. Pujols has a daughter with Down syndrome. Neither talks a lot. Each says what he means.

An old-school earnestness accompanies Votto. The day the Reds drafted him in 2002, Votto bought a copy of Ted Williams' classic The Science of Hitting. He took it with him everywhere, "until it got so dog-eared and dirty, I had to leave it at my apartment in Cincinnati. It'll probably be with me until the end of my career.''

Votto seeks out older coaches who might have seen Williams hit. He watches the old black-and-whites of Williams at the plate, that long stride, that graceful swing. "He was mythic,'' Votto said.

"The thesis of the book was, get a good pitch to hit, be quick, make sure your swing is prepared,'' said Votto. Everything any hitter strives for, in other words, but very few master.

Votto is guarded with his personal life. On the field, he's an easy read. Watch him in batting practice, measuring every swing, stroking an identical number of balls to each field, his brain working as hard as his body.

"If I feel like (the opposing starter) is throwing a little harder, I think about driving the ball up the middle. If he throws a lot of breaking balls, I'll try some other approach,'' Votto said. I ask him if he's ever taken a swing off. I mean, at any time.

"No. I've made that mistake before, and it cost me. You get a little older, you can't waste swings,'' said Votto, who will turn all of 27 on Friday. "I don't have the energy. Baseball is my job. I'm not here to (mess) around.''

Said Reds hitting coach Brook Jacoby, "He's like no one else when he prepares for a game.''

Scott Rolen, now Cincinnati's third baseman and a former teammate of Pujols, calls it "that little extra spark that drives you to want to beat (pitchers) like (Chris) Carpenter and (Adam) Wainwright.

"I've played with and against (Phillies ace) Roy Halladay," said Rolen. "He's going to try to out-compete you. He's not giving you an inch, even if he's been touched up for a few runs. I see that in Joey. The good ones have a way of being good, no matter what.''

Votto or Pujols? Pujols or Votto? The numbers are so close, they don't help. Through Tuesday:

Two outs and runners in scoring position: Pujols, .348, three homers and 22 RBIs in 46 at-bats, plus 25 walks; Votto, .318 five and 24, in 44 at-bats, with 10 walks. Pujols hit .379 in August, with 11 homers; Votto batted .333, with 25 RBIs. Pujols leads the league in putouts, assists, double plays, fielding percentage and something called Range Factor, a Bill James concoction that measures a player's ability to get to a batted ball.

Votto is the best player on the team that had the second-best record in the league.

Similar numbers, similar men, similar methods. Identical stubbornness.

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