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Slugging it out

In tight MVP race among AL's heavy hitters, Guerrero may have the edge

The smile on Manny Ramirez's face said it all. On the morning the Red Sox made their memorable Duck Boat romp through Boston -- perhaps the city's most famous excursion since Paul Revere's midnight ride -- Ramirez hardly could contain his joy after being named World Series MVP.

"How many others have there been?" Ramirez wondered aloud at Fenway Park after donning his powder-blue leather coat and preparing to board one of the amphibious vehicles.

The answer, of course, is none. Ramirez is the first Red Sox player to capture a World Series MVP award (the award was not established until 1931).

But that honor may have to suffice for Ramirez, along with his Hank Aaron Award for the league's best overall offensive performance and his Silver Slugger as one of the AL's three most productive outfielders. As much as he hopes to add the league MVP award when the winner is announced today, Ramirez may join another favorite son of Massachusetts in falling short in a national election. For one thing, Ramirez faces stiff hometown competition from his bashing buddy, David Ortiz. Gary Sheffield of the Yankees also poses a threat. But all of them may wind up behind Anaheim's Vladimir Guerrero.

In other words, the chances are good that the MVP election map will look blue in the Northeast and Anaheim red in much of the rest of the country.

The award is based solely on the regular season, which means Ramirez's performance in the World Series and Ortiz's feats in the earlier rounds (he was named MVP of the AL Championship Series and struck the clinching homer in the Division Series) count for nothing.

Even though Ramirez and Ortiz finished the regular season ahead of Guerrero in home runs, RBIs, extra-base hits, and slugging percentage (Ramirez also topped him in on-base percentage), Guerrero edged them in runs, batting average, hits, total bases, and games played. He also staged a sensational stretch run in which he almost singlehandedly catapulted the Angels into the postseason.

Guerrero capped his season by hitting .536 (15 for 28) with 6 homers, 11 RBIs, and 10 runs in the final seven games of the season to help the Angels overcome a three-game deficit and overtake the A's to win the AL West. He was named the league's player of the month in September for hitting .371 with 10 homers, 23 RBIs, and 24 runs.

By comparison, Ramirez hit .269 with 7 homers, 22 RBIs, and 20 runs after Sept. 1, while Ortiz batted .300 with 8 homers, 25 RBIs, and 22 runs in the same period.

Playing for the same team is certain to hurt Ramirez and Ortiz in the balloting. As dominant as they were in becoming the first AL teammates since Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in 1931 to hit .300 with 40 homers and 130 RBIs, Ramirez and Ortiz could split some votes. (Ruth and Gehrig finished behind Lefty Grove that year in the race for the inaugural AL MVP award.)

Even though Ramirez finished with a slight edge in batting statistics and played defense while Ortiz mostly served as a designated hitter, the difficulty in distinguishing between them as MVP candidates is reflected in a couple of categories that indicate contributions in the clutch. While Sheffield and Baltimore's Miguel Tejada led the league in game-winning RBIs with 19, Ortiz, Ramirez, and Minnesota's Jacque Jones ranked next with 17, ahead of Guerrero (15). Tejada led the league in go-ahead RBIs with 36, while Ortiz and Sheffield finished with 33, ahead of Ramirez, Guerrero, and five other players who had 27.

Though New Yorkers could make a strong case that Hideki Matsui was nearly as valuable to the Yankees as Sheffield, Guerrero has no such rival on his team -- or in the AL West or Central, for that matter. As a result, Guerrero appears better aligned to prevail.

Tejada, who joined Matsui as the only American Leaguers to appear in all 162 games, would be a bona fide MVP candidate if the Orioles fared better (they finished third in the AL East, 23 games out). Ichiro Suzuki also would be a leading contender if the Mariners didn't finish last in the West, 29 games back. Suzuki, who was elected by his peers as the league's outstanding player in the annual Players Choice Awards presented by the Players Association, won the batting title at .372 and broke George Sisler's 84-year-old record of 257 hits with 262.

The Sox have another candidate in Johnny Damon, whose name is likely to appear in the lower slots on many ballots. Damon scored 123 runs, one shy of matching Guerrero for the league lead. He also hit .355 with runners in scoring position, ranking behind only Suzuki (.372) and Detroit's Ivan Rodriguez (.366). And, most important, he was the catalyst for the most productive offense in baseball.

But Guerrero carried the Angels through a season in which they were riddled with injuries and their No. 2 run producer, Jose Guillen, was suspended with eight games to play.

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