Commentary

Dominant NL simply overpowers AL

Senior Circuit wins second straight All-Star Game with an impressive performance

Originally Published: July 12, 2011
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

PHOENIX -- He held the baseball in his hands with two outs in the ninth inning, as 47,994 people roared and his jet-black beard dangled in the desert night.

But as Brian Wilson prepared to throw the final pitch of the 82nd All-Star Game on Tuesday night, he was struck by the thought that the baseball wasn't all he was holding.

At that point, said The Beard, "you're playing for something bigger than just yourself."

And by that, as best we can tell, he wasn't referring to his facial hair's next endorsement deal. No, this was even larger than that.

Heath Bell Now we're trying to put a team together to win -- and try to have a 14-game winning streak.

-- Padres closer Heath Bell

The National League was about to do something that hadn't occurred since the first term of the William Jefferson Clinton administration. It was about to win two -- count 'em, two -- All-Star Games in a row.

Not to suggest it had been a long time since that happened, but the last time the National Leaguers pulled that off, in 1995-96, the guys they ran out there in the process included Tyler Green, Raul Mondesi and Jose Offerman.

So Wilson kicked at the dirt, crouched for one last sign, rocked and fired. Paul Konerko cooperatively rolled the final pitch of this All-Star evening to short. And whaddaya know, the National League had won itself another All-Star Game, 5-1.

"That's what we do now," deadpanned the NL's starting third baseman, Scott Rolen, afterward. "Is it even a story anymore?"

Well, yeah, it is, as a matter of fact. The brigadier general himself, Bud Selig, has commanded that we take these games seriously now, right? And the man who managed the National League in this game, Giants manager Bruce Bochy, actually got that memo.

He kicked off the evening by rolling out pretty much every Cy Young candidate he could round up -- a Halladay (Roy) followed by a Lee (Cliff), a Kershaw (Clayton) followed by a Jurrjens (Jair).

That got the NL into the seventh inning with a lead. And then it was time for Bochy to strike up his fearsome bullpen parade of radar-gun wonders -- Craig Kimbrel to Jonny Venters to Heath Bell to Joel Hanrahan to The Beard himself.

"It seemed like it was guy after guy throwing 98," said Tim Lincecum, an explosive Cy Young device whom Bochy didn't even have to detonate in this game. "It was pretty impressive."

Meanwhile, over on the American League side of the field, manager Ron Washington was having a whole mess of trouble trying to match that NL firestorm.

For some reason, he agreed to limit his starter, Jered Weaver, to one inning, as a favor to the Angels. Then Weaver's designated successor, Josh Beckett, had to shut it down while warming up and couldn't go. And the AL pitching procession just got increasingly out of whack from there.

So Washington wound up running this game like an intrasquad game before the Cactus League opener. And wasn't that special?

He used his first seven pitchers for an inning apiece, then divvied up the final inning between Alexi Ogando and Gio Gonzalez. And from the moment C.J. Wilson served up a game-breaking three-run homer to Prince Fielder in the fourth inning, this felt like a chess game the AL just couldn't win.

Could it have made a difference -- maybe a massive difference -- if guys like Beckett, Justin Verlander and CC Sabathia could have pitched? OK, sure it could have. But that wasn't the National League's problem.

"They had a lot of guys who could have pitched and changed the whole game," NL second baseman Brandon Phillips said. "But me personally, I'm glad they didn't, because they helped us get home-field advantage [in the World Series]. So I'd just like to tell them thank you."

Now, if we were handing out some advice for Verlander or Sabathia, we'd suggest that they probably shouldn't spend the next few days hanging by the mailbox to wait for that thank-you note. To be honest, nobody in that National League locker room sounded THAT appreciative.

There was a different wave of sentiment flowing through the winners' clubhouse -- the feeling that the National League wasn't going to have to worry about going 13 straight years without winning an All-Star Game for a long, long, looong time.

If this league can keep assembling All-Star pitching staffs as relentlessly dominating as the group it unleashed Tuesday in the desert, this tide may well have turned.

After all, said Brian Wilson, if this is now, for real, The Age of the Pitcher, "then you're speaking about the National League." But if that's true, it's a very, very new development.

For essentially this entire millennium, it's those National Leaguers who had been on the wrong end of these All-Star pitching matchups. Year after year they found themselves trying to mess with Pedro and Johan and CC and Halladay at the front end of the game -- and then had shutdown bullpen forces like Joe Nathan, Jonathan Papelbon and that Mariano guy waiting for them at the end of the game. Some fun.

But now, it's the National League's turn to play that game.

The assemblage of starters Bochy ran out there was fearsome enough. But then Brian Wilson got to lean back in that bullpen and watch the smokeballing relief corps go trotting toward the mound, one after another after another.

Then again, we should probably mention that at least in one case, "trotting" wouldn't exactly describe it.

That would be the Heath Bell portion of these proceedings, which arrived with two outs in the eighth inning. The bullpen gates opened and here came Bell, sprinting toward the infield like he was running the anchor leg in the Olympic 400-meter relay.

And then, as he passed the infield dirt and hit the grass, he launched into a spectacular feet-first slide, right out of the Rogers Hornsby handbook. It was a thing of beauty …

Other than the part where he ripped up his very special All-Star-uniform pants leg, just below the knee.

"Hey, that's OK," Bell would philosophize later. "I don't need these pants. I've got another pair hanging right there [in his locker]."

Tim Lincecum He was treating it like it was an important game, because it is.

-- Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum
on manager Bruce Bochy

So how did this burst of gymnastic dexterity come about, you ask? Well, it's been brewing for about a week, Bell confessed, with the help of some minor encouragement from his co-conspirators in the Padres bullpen. Not that the always-entertaining Bell needed much encouragement.

But once he arrived in Phoenix, Bell admitted he began having some second thoughts. So even as he went charging toward the mound, he wasn't 100 percent certain he was going to go through with it. Then, he said, he heard third baseman Pablo Sandoval yell to the rest of the infield: "Hey guys, get out of the way. He's gonna slide."

So slide he did, and pronounced afterward that he'd "nailed it."

"I think so," Bell said, proudly. "I didn't hurt myself."

And the reason he didn't, he reported, was that "I practiced it a couple times … on my lawn, last week."

"Hey, you think I'd do something stupid?" he chuckled. "I'm not going to do something stupid without practicing."

The one part of this act Bell hadn't figured on, though, was what happened next: He picked himself up, got ready to pitch to Jhonny Peralta -- and promptly went 3-and-0.

"When I got to 2-and-0, and 3-and-0," Bell quipped, "I said, 'You know, that [slide] might not have been such a good idea.'"

But he regrouped, and retired Peralta on a popup to second. And that, he said, was actually a good omen -- because the year before, he'd also sprinted to the mound and then set down the only hitter he faced (Torii Hunter) on a popup.

"If I come in, face one guy and get a popup, we win," Bell divulged, at his sabermetric finest. "If I come in and pitch a whole inning like I did two years ago, we lose -- and I don't want to lose."

That was one thing he clearly had in common with his NL teammates, anyhow.

And it could all be traced to the moments before the game, when Bochy had given a stirring -- OK, maybe not THAT stirring -- pep talk to his troops about the profound importance of home-field advantage in the World Series.

"Actually, it was pretty mild," Lincecum revealed. "I mean, Boch is not the biggest guy with words, if you know what I mean."

But hey, it got the point across.

"Just hearing it coming out of his mouth after he won the World Series," Phillips said, "all you could do is think, 'It really IS important.'"

Bochy then backed up his words by managing the game as if he meant it, manufacturing runs with three stolen bases, making strategic mid-inning pitching changes and, especially, lining up his killer bullpen attack force to close this thing out.

"He was treating it like it was an important game," Lincecum said, "because it is."

Funny thing, though: In a game in which Bochy's pitchers gave up just one run (on a fourth-inning solo homer by Adrian Gonzalez) and allowed only three AL hitters all night to come to the plate with a runner in scoring position, the ultimate irony was this:

The winning pitcher, Nationals setup man Tyler Clippard, was a fellow who faced exactly one hitter (Adrian Beltre) -- and let that guy get a hit. Fortunately for him, left fielder Hunter Pence gathered up that hit and threw out Jose Bautista at the plate for the final out in the fourth.

Then, even more fortunately, Fielder put the NL ahead with a three-run bomb. And Clippard was about to become the first pitcher in All-Star Game history to get a win after an outing in which he allowed a hit to the only hitter he faced. Hard to do.

"Hey," Bell joked, "anybody who could wear sunglasses inside a dome SHOULD get a win. That guy's awesome."

But this wasn't just any win. It was a win that brought a long-lost phenomenon from yesteryear back to life: a real live National League winning streak. And this group's object, clearly, was to have that streak survive for more than just another 12 months.

"Now," Bell said, "we're trying to put a team together to win -- and try to have a 14-game winning streak."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is now available in a new paperback edition, in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

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Senior Writer, ESPN.com