Backup outfielders play leading roles

ST. LOUIS -- Carl Crawford's Tampa Bay teammates watched him steal six bases in a win over Boston in early May, and they saw him lead the American League in triples each year from 2004 through 2006, so they're aware of his ability to take over games with his tools and make the extraordinary seem commonplace.

It was especially nice for Crawford's buddies to watch him play superstar before a packed house and a national TV audience instead of the obligatory 23,000 fans at Tropicana Field, where excellence occasionally gets lost amid the apathy and the catwalks.

On a muggy Tuesday night in St. Louis, Crawford became the first position player to win an All-Star MVP award without an RBI since Willie Mays did it in 1968. His single in the fifth inning was obscured by his springs, his instincts and his ability to turn a potentially devastating blow into a Torii Hunter moment.

Crawford leaped and snatched a Brad Hawpe drive out of the AL bullpen to preserve a 3-3 tie in the bottom of the seventh inning. Adam Jones drove home Curtis Granderson with a sacrifice fly to make it 4-3 in the top of the eighth, and Crawford wound up taking home the Ted Williams Award as the game's MVP.

Say hey.

"That guy is amazing, man,'' said Tampa Bay first baseman Carlos Pena. "I get to watch him every single day, and he's so underrated. If Carl Crawford were playing in a big city, maybe he would get the recognition he deserves. He's one of the best players in this game, hands down. He can do it all.''

Said Tampa utility man Ben Zobrist: "People just look at his speed, but he really is a phenomenal outfielder. He gets to balls that most people don't. He has every tool in the book.''

The American League extended its All-Star unbeaten streak to 13 games thanks largely to a pitching staff that rode to starter Roy Halladay's rescue with seven scoreless innings. Still, this clearly is not your father's power-happy AL roster. Manager Joe Maddon's team relied on some speed here and a little defense and clutch hitting there, with the biggest plays all coming from the backup outfielders.

Granderson started the winning rally with a triple off Heath Bell with one out in the eighth inning. The two players were teammates with Licey in the Dominican winter league in 2005, just as Granderson was breaking in as a center-field regular in Detroit and Bell was trying to establish himself in the New York Mets' bullpen.

"I hope he's not mad at me,'' Granderson said.

No offense to Granderson and Detroit third baseman Brandon Inge. But if someone had told you the Tigers would send four players to St. Louis and team offensive mainstay Miguel Cabrera wouldn't be on the list, you might have asked for a recount. Yet Granderson, Inge and pitchers Justin Verlander and Edwin Jackson all tipped their caps at Busch Stadium, while Cabrera stayed home.

Between batting leadoff and playing center field for manager Jim Leyland's Tigers each night, Granderson still found time in his schedule to finagle 15 tickets to the All-Star Game and distribute jerseys to assorted friends, relatives, friends of relatives and his parents, Curtis Sr. and Mary.

"I'm like the coordinator and concierge for everybody,'' Granderson said.

After Granderson got himself to third base, Jones drove him in. Jones fell behind quickly against Bell, worked the count to 2-2, and drove a fastball to right field for the go-ahead sacrifice fly. Judging from his patience and composure, you would have never known Jones is only 23 years old.

"I'm just relishing the moment right now,'' Jones said. "I just looked at my phone and I've got 40 text messages. Hopefully all the people who texted me think this was pretty cool.''

This speed, defense and athleticism thing just might catch on for the American League. Granderson always busts it out of the box on home runs because maybe, just maybe, the ball might die at the fence, and he can't stomach the thought of standing on first base when he should be on second.

Jones has always had a reputation as a five-tool guy, and Crawford's flair for the spectacular is self-evident. For what it's worth, Crawford said he had never reached over the wall to steal a home run from an opponent, which speaks well for his sense of timing Tuesday night.

In Maddon's estimation, Crawford has become a better defender, thrower, baserunner and base stealer since 2006 because of the relentless effort he channels into his game preparation. The payoff lies in the results: Crawford turns 28 next month, and he's a three-time All-Star, a World Series participant, and now an All-Star MVP.

"Carl has been in the league so long, you think he's a veteran,'' Pena said. "But he's still just a kid. We haven't seen the best of Carl Crawford yet.''

That's more than a vote of confidence on behalf of a teammate. It's downright scary to contemplate.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.