Bauman: NL capitalizes on Year of Pitcher
Allows one unearned run to win first All-Star Game since 1996
ANAHEIM -- The long National (League) nightmare has ended.
Tuesday night the NL was once again the Senior Circuit in deed as well as word, winning an All-Star Game for the first time since 1996. The longest winless streak in All-Star Game history -- 13 games -- was over, finished, kaput, history at this address.
And as a bonus, some fortunate and talented NL club is going to have home-field advantage in the World Series. Since the All-Star Game format changed in 2003, giving the winning league home-field advantage for the Series, only the American League had enjoyed the benefits of this innovation. Now, after seven straight Series advantages for AL clubs, an NL team will finally reap the considerable benefits of this arrangement.
So the NL has won the All-Star Game, 3-1. All things must be possible. Let's get that oil in the Gulf of Mexico cleaned up.
OK, it was just an exhibition baseball game. Still, it was a breakthrough. First time in this millennium for the National League. Why? How? Who? Huh?
Catcher Brian McCann of the Braves gets obvious kudos in addition to the Most Valuable Player Award. Widely known as a fine all-around player, a first-rate defensive catcher and one of the nicest people in the game, McCann will now also be known for having a huge All-Star hit when the NL shattered the streak. His three-run double in the seventh inning transformed this game, and came off a very tough left-handed reliever, Matt Thornton of the Chicago White Sox.
But beyond McCann was a line of National League pitchers who would not be scored upon, even by the truly imposing lineup the AL put on the field. This was for the most part, a game that illustrated on an All-Star level, what the "Year of the Pitcher" was all about. The last time an All-Star Game ended 3-1 was '97 -- ironically enough the year that the AL's long unbeaten streak began.
The only crack in the armor for the NL came via a defensive mistake by a pitcher. It was at least a medium-sized crack, courtesy of Dodgers reliever Hong-Chih Kuo.
Kuo came on in relief in the fifth inning of a scoreless tie and walked Tampa Bay third baseman Evan Longoria to lead off the frame. These things happen. Then Minnesota catcher Joe Mauer hit an innocuous bouncer back to the mound. The thought at this point was: "That may have been the softest ball that Joe Mauer ever hit."
But that thought was quickly replaced. Kuo fielded the bouncer and turned to throw to San Diego's Adrian Gonzalez at first. Kuo's throw to first had late movement. Unfortunately, it was pretty much the late movement of an airplane. Adrian Gonzalez is a man of reasonable size: 6-feet-2-inches tall. But he could have been Yao Ming and he wasn't getting this baseball. Kuo's throw soared over Gonzalez as Longoria went happily to third and Mauer went to second. Yankee second baseman Robinson Cano then delivered a fly ball of suitable depth to left field, scoring Longoria.
In a game dominated by pitching, this was a huge deal. Offensively, to that point, it was the only deal. But even though there was a problem with the way one of the NL pitchers threw to first base, there was nothing wrong with the way the NL pitched.
Ubaldo Jimenez, Josh Johnson, Heath Bell, Roy Halladay, Matt Capps, Adam Wainwright, Brian Wilson, Jonathan Broxton -- that's the honor roll of NL pitchers who gave up no runs of any sort to the powerful AL roster. To pitch nine innings against that group and give up one measly unearned run, it's the best kind of tribute to the NL All-Star men of the mound.
And what is pitching's sidekick, the Robin to its Batman? Defense. How about one huge ninth-inning play to put this one on ice for the Nationals? Here's Marlon Byrd of the Cubs in right, where he hasn't played all season. With one out and one on in the ninth, Toronto's John Buck hits a flare into short right. Byrd charges, then pulls up, catches the ball on the bounce, spins and throws to second, where Dodgers shortstop Rafael Furcal is covering.
Boston designated hitter David Ortiz was the runner on first. He won the Home Run Derby the previous night, but here's the shortcoming in his game: speed of foot. He has been forced to linger in no man's land waiting for this ball to be caught or not. Byrd's throw to second beats Ortiz and a single has been turned into a forceout. Two on, one out has been transformed into one on, two out. Broxton, the closer, gets Texas second baseman Ian Kinsler to fly out to center on a 99-mph fastball and the game is over. And so is the AL's winning streak.
The thing central in his mind, Byrd said, was not Ortiz running at first, but with a two-run lead, keeping the runners at first and second.
"I made up my mind to let it drop, then spin and throw," Byrd said.
That play doused what passed for an AL rally. And now all the NL All-Stars had terrific reasons to celebrate.
"It's amazing," Byrd said. "We broke the streak. Years from now, we can always talk about 2010, and I can say I was part of that team."
"That was pretty special," said Broxton, who got the streak-busting save. "Everybody was smiling, jumping up and down, having a lot of fun."
This was genuinely large for the National Leaguers, but based on the way they pitched and played in this game, it was also richly deserved. "I talked to our guys right before the game and told them the importance of home-field advantage," NL manager Charlie Manuel said. "I don't know if they heard or not, you'd have to ask them, but I liked the way they pitched, and the play Byrd made at the end to throw out Ortiz at second. Good game, good pitching."
Good game, good pitching, and for the Senior Circuit, good riddance to the end of the All-Star Game's longest winless streak.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.