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Brian Walton's news and commentary on the St. Louis Cardinals (TM) and their minor league system

Pujols fans need to watch Votto… and Infante?

Could an unexpected challenger ruin the chase for the Triple Crown?

Joey Votto and Albert Pujols (AP/Jeff Roberson)On Wednesday afternoon, I tuned in to catch the Atlanta Braves take a 10-1 lead over the Colorado Rockies only for the home club to come back to seize an improbable Coors Field-powered 12-10 win.

I left that broadcast with two thoughts, neither of them good.

First was a recollection of the July 6 game, also at Coors, in which the St. Louis Cardinals yielded nine runs to the Rockies in the bottom of the ninth. St. Louis lost 12-9 on a walkoff three-run home run by Seth Smith against Ryan Franklin.

The second was a point highlighted by the Atlanta announcers – the batting championship candidacy of two of their players. One is infielder Martin Prado, currently batting .317. Along with Triple Crown candidates Joey Votto and Albert Pujols (pictured), Prado is among the top five in the National League race along with Carlos Gonzalez of the Rockies (.320) and former Cardinal Placido Polanco of the Phillies (.318).

The second Braves name mentioned, the one that hit me out of the blue, is 2010 National League All-Star Omar Infante. Atlanta’s second baseman and leadoff hitter is batting .347 after going 1-for-5 on Wednesday.

That is 24 points ahead of Votto and 25 more than Pujols at the start of the day, but here’s the rub. As of yet, Infante does not have enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title.

While the baseball world is watching a potential Triple Crown race between the pair of NL Central first sackers, could this unexpected contender come from nowhere to gum up the works?

It is hardly assured.

Through Wednesday, Infante has just 347 plate appearances this season. To qualify for the batting championship, a hitter must accrue an average of 3.1 PAs per game times 162 games or 502 plate appearances in total.

If a hitter falls short of 502, he can be given enough hitless at-bats to get his total to the minimum. Of course, his average drops accordingly. In this case, there is also the necessity for Infante to continue to hit well enough to remain in contention.

Yet, it is certainly possible. For example, in 1996, San Diego’s Tony Gwynn took the NL batting title despite having 498 plate appearances.

Here is one case, loaded with assumptions. Any of them may not come to pass, invalidating the conclusion. Still, it offers an example of what could happen here in 2010.

In the second half, Infante is averaging just over 3.9 plate appearances per game. The Braves have 35 games remaining after Wednesday. If Omar plays every day, he would accrue another 137 plate appearances for a total of 484.

To calculate his qualifying batting average, he would be assessed a 0-for-18 addition to his then-current average to reach 502.

There is one other consideration – the difference between plate appearances and at-bats. Today, Infante has 347 PAs and 326 at-bats. Keeping that ratio constant for the remainder of the season would leave him with 455 at-bats.

Another big assumption is that Infante could maintain his .347 average through those 455 at-bats (and 484 plate appearances). If so, he would have 158 hits at season’s end.

Adding the 0-for-18 for the batting championship qualification would mean he would have 158 hits in 473 at-bats (455 plus 18). That would drop his qualifying average 13 points to .334.

That would still be more than good enough to top both Votto and Pujols – given their averages today, of course.

The bottom line is a suggestion to keep an eye on Infante as well as the two Triple Crown contenders over the final five weeks. I know I will be.

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