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John Smallwood: Phillies' Polanco quietly makes push for NL batting title

HERE'S WHY Phillies third baseman Placido Polanco isn't putting a lot of concern in the National League batting title race.

Placido Polanco is second in the NL and seventh in all of baseball with a .321 batting average.  (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Placido Polanco is second in the NL and seventh in all of baseball with a .321 batting average. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)Read more

HERE'S WHY Phillies third baseman Placido Polanco isn't putting a lot of concern in the National League batting title race.

When last night's game against the San Francisco Giants started, Polanco was leading the race with a .325 average - one point better than Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto.

But after an 0-for-4 game in the Phillies' 8-2 victory, Polanco was hitting .321 - three points behind Votto.

With 43 games left in the regular season and 10 National League players hitting over .300, there figures to be a lot of leap-frogging before this thing is settled.

So why sweat it?

It's not something that's on Polanco's mind.

"I don't want to talk about it," Polanco said of being the top National League hitter. "I saw that today and like a million people told me that also.

"But, really, so what? You know what I mean? You just go out and play your best and what happens will happen."

Polanco isn't trying to duck what could become a hot individual storyline down the stretch.

He knows how special a batting title is. It's just not something he feels is worth focusing on.

"Of course," Polanco said, when asked if it would be nice to win a batting title. "But it's not something I worry about or am concerned with.

"I don't even really want to talk about it because those really aren't the sort of things that you can control."

With so many games left, a minor slump by some players or hot streaks by others could shuffle everything.

Still, if Polanco did go on to win the batting title, he would be the first Phillie to do so since Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn did it by hitting .350 in 1958.

That was more than a half-century ago.

In another one of those statistical anomalies for a franchise that has been in existence since 1883, the Phillies have had only six batting champions in their 127-year history.

"Of course, it's a big deal," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said of winning a batting title. "It means you are the best hitter in the league. That's big."

The Phillies knew they were upgrading at third base when they signed Polanco to a 3-year contract before this season. They had gotten to consecutive World Series with Pedro Feliz batting .249 and .266 while manning the hot corner.

Polanco was a career .303-hitter who had improved immensely since his first stint in Philadelphia from 2002 to 2005. But in a season where injuries have wreaked havoc with the starting lineup and inconsistency has been the norm at the plate, Polanco has been the constant.

"The best hitter on our team has to be Polanco because he puts the ball in play consistently," Manuel said. "He hits the ball with the fat part of the bat and doesn't strike out a whole lot.

"He puts the ball in play and he puts in play hard. He's the one hitting .325 [before the game] so it kind of speaks for itself."

Polanco's value to the Phillies is best illustrated by what has happened when he hasn't played.

Like every Phillie regular except for Jayson Werth and Raul Ibanez, Polanco missed significant time due to injury. He's played in just 92 of the Phillies' 119 games.

And while the extended absences of marquee players like Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard have received the most attention, not having Polanco has been just as troublesome.

After beating the Giants, the Phillies are 57-34 in games that Polanco has started. That's a .626 winning percentage, which is surpassed only by the .633 winning percentage (38-22) in games that Rollins has started.

Polanco is the perfect No. 2 hitter.

He hits for average, doesn't strike out a lot (35 strikeouts in 392 at bats) and does the other things that sometimes go unnoticed.

His bat control makes him a good situational batter. He's a contact hitter who can be relied on to advance a runner a base or hit a sacrifice fly.

Despite his limited number of games, Polanco's six sacrifice flies ranks in the Top 10 in the National League - four behind league-leader David Wright's 10 in 119 games and Werth's nine in 115 games.

"I couldn't tell you what it is," Polanco said of his consistency. "I just work hard. Maybe it's because I don't strike out. If you put the ball in play, the chances are something is going to happen."

With the Phillies just getting Utley back in the lineup and Howard possibly back sometime next week, this team will finally have the full attack it expected to have when the season began.

Down the stretch drive, the names of Howard, Utley, Rollins and Werth are probably going to generate the most headlines. But don't be shocked if Polanco quietly bats his way into Phillies history.

Consistency is the key to success in a long baseball season.

That has been Polanco's strong point.

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