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Juan's Big Year Gets Little Attention
By Dennis Manoloff
Cleveland Plain Dealer

Juan GonzalezThroughout the season, Juan Gonzalez has been lethal at the plate and solid in the field. He has enabled Tribe fans to forget, even pity, Manny Ramirez.

Yet Gonzalez largely has escaped the attention of the national media as a legitimate candidate for his third Most Valuable Player award. The likes of Ichiro Suzuki and Bret Boone in Seattle, Jason Giambi in Oakland, Alex Rodriguez in Texas, and the Tribe's Roberto Alomar have been propped up before Gonzalez gets a mention.

All are worthy candidates, to be sure - but none more so than Gonzalez. The man whom manager Charlie Manuel says sniffs out RBI like a bloodhound was at it again yesterday, cracking a two-run homer in the first inning as part of the Tribe's 9-8 victory over the White Sox in Jacobs Field.

Gonzalez finished 1-for-3 in extending his hitting streak to a season-high 12 games, during which he has batted .370 (17-for-46) with five homers and 23 RBI. He increased his RBI total for the year to 138, which easily leads the league and is the third highest in his career.

Consider that Gonzalez has missed 16 games, and the RBI volume is all the more impressive. Among the premier run producers in either league, he ranks first with 1.09 RBI per game, an efficiency eclipsing that of his top two RBI years - 1998 (157 in 154 games) and 1996 (144 in 134 games).

"Winning the MVP doesn't cross my mind because it's out of my control," the soft-spoken Gonzalez said. "That's the decision of the baseball writers. What crosses my mind is putting numbers on the board that can help my team win games. If we win, I'm happy."

Perhaps the most overlooked statistic in Gonzalez's bushel basket is batting average. A .294 hitter in 1,363 major-league games entering the season, Gonzalez sits at .344, second only to Suzuki in the league and top five in the majors.

"Juan's been lost in the shuffle a bit for MVP, but he's got to be one of the leading candidates," teammate Kenny Lofton said. "How can you almost have two-thirds of the triple crown and not be? You can't do much more than that."

Where the other third is concerned, Gonzalez has 35 homers, good for second on the team (Jim Thome) and top 10 in the league. The 35th had onlookers gasping. On a 3-2 pitch from tough left-hander Mark Buehrle, Gonzalez reached down for a nasty breaking pitch and flicked it virtually one-handed over the wall in left.

"He made a good pitch, but my bat is hot right now," Gonzalez said. "I'm being patient up there, especially with runners on base. I'm as comfortable at the plate as I have been all season."

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