Derrek Lee raises and plants his left leg, takes a deceptively loose swing and deposits another baseball beyond the ivy-covered wall, lifting hopes that he can become the first Triple Crown winner in decades.

Hitting Major League pitching has been called the toughest task in sports but the Chicago Cubs' towering first baseman offered a simple explanation for how he has made it look easy so far this season: "I just feel like I've gotten better."

Until a sore left shoulder took him out of the lineup this week, the 29-year-old Lee had started all his team's 82 games and was leading the National League with a .378 batting average. He was also near the top with 25 home runs and 67 runs batted in.

If Lee finishes atop those three categories he will become the 17th player to win baseball's Triple Crown in more than a century of record-keeping and the first to achieve the feat since Boston Red Sox outfielder Carl Yastrzemski in 1967.

"There are great players out there, that's what makes it tough to do," Lee, in his eighth season, said before a recent game.

"Not only do you have to have a great season . . . but if Barry Bonds hits 73 [home runs] it's going to be hard to win the Triple Crown, you know what I mean? So no matter how great your season is, it's going to depend on what other players are doing."

Lee's teammates and even opponents are pulling for him and marvel at his consistency over the first half of the season.

"He's killing the ball right now," rookie Cubs shortstop Ronny Cedeno said. "He is so relaxed; a great guy. I'm asking him, 'You see the ball this big?' " said a grinning Cedeno, his hands apart as if holding a beach ball.

"I've never played with a guy making a bid for the Triple Crown. You don't see that too often," said third baseman Aramis Ramirez, who along with Lee has been named to his first all-star team.

"He's the same guy, he just doesn't miss his pitches. When he gets a pitch to hit he puts it in play and he puts it in play hard," Ramirez said.

Opposing players remark on Lee's success when they reach first base and have a moment to chat.

"Some guys might rub on you and say 'Let me get some of whatever you've got'," Lee said. "Most guys, it's just, 'Good job, keep it going'."

Like Yastrzemski's "Impossible Year" in which he added 50 points to his batting average and nearly tripled his home run production, Lee's emergence from competence to stardom has seen him add 100 points to his career average and nearly double his home run pace.

"You have to go back to the 1930s to compare the numbers of [Lou] Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx -- players who hit for average and had good power numbers," said Bruce Levine of ESPN Radio, who has been covering the Cubs for 25 years.

"I've seen players have a week or two like Derrek Lee has had, but not for the whole first half of the season," said Bob Brenly, a Cubs announcer and former manager. "I can only recall a handful of games in the first half where he didn't look like he was going to win the Triple Crown."

The trend in baseball had been more toward niche players -- those who could spray line drives with the speed to beat out slow rollers, or those who hit for power, Brenly said.

Flawless Fielder

In baseball's storied past, Triple Crown winners have included well-rounded players such as Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams and Frank Robinson. Current players who have come close include Bonds, Albert Pujols and Vladimir Guerrero.

Built like the basketball player he once was, the 6-foot-5, 245-pound Lee is both fast and powerful as well as a flawless fielder. He has learned to hit the inside pitch that "pitchers used to get me out with," he said, because his left leg kick can leave him off balance.

Most of all, he has learned to wait for his pitch.

"I've had good years before but I've had bad starts. My April usually makes my average look worse. You know, last year I hit .300 for a while and fell off at the end of the season.

"I felt like I've had good years, but this year just kind of came together."

Lee leaves his locker, located in the center of the Cubs' locker room, and heads for the field to stretch, take some relaxed swings in the batting cage, and sign a few autographs. Ramirez whispers something and Lee falls to one knee, leaning on his bat, convulsed with laughter.

Lee, whose father and uncle played professional baseball, is quietly confident and refers constantly to team, not individual, goals.

He would trade his lofty statistics for another World Series title, which he won while playing for the Florida Marlins in 2003 but which has eluded the Cubs since 1908.

"I don't think about the Triple Crown, I think about getting to the World Series," he says. "If you win the Triple Crown, great."

"I just feel like I've gotten better," says Derrek Lee, 29, who is hitting nearly 100 points above his career average."This year just kind of came together," says Lee, bidding to become baseball's first Triple Crown winner since Boston's Carl Yastrzemski in 1967.