Broxton saves the day for NL
Dodgers closer makes it interesting but doesn't wilt as he helps end 13-game streak
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- When the inevitable question came after Tuesday night's All-Star Game, a 3-1 National League victory before 45,408 at Angel Stadium, Jonathan Broxton wouldn't bite on it. In a jubilant clubhouse and on an evening when the Los Angeles Dodgers closer wore a much bigger smile and was far more eloquent than he normally is, he just wasn't going to go there.
No, he said, this wasn't about redemption.
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"The postseason the last two years is over and done," Broxton said, beads of sweat visible on his forehead after surviving a wild ninth inning, nailing down the first NL win since 1996 and recording the first All-Star save by an NL pitcher since 1995. "I was just focusing on tonight, going out there and helping our team win and getting home-field advantage in the World Series."
Funny thing about the World Series: The Dodgers fell tantalizingly short of getting there each of the past two years, and Broxton's outsized role in those failures was something NL manager Charlie Manuel knew well, given that it was his Philadelphia Phillies who had benefited from them.
All that aside, and despite Broxton's perhaps-undeserved reputation for crumbling on the big stage, Manuel made the decision right after a three-run double by Atlanta catcher Brian McCann gave the NL a 3-1 lead in the seventh that he would use St. Louis starter Adam Wainwright for the seventh, San Francisco closer Brian Wilson for the eighth -- and Broxton for the ninth.
"That was pretty awesome, a dream come true," Broxton said. "For Charlie and the staff to have enough confidence in me to send me out there for that inning, that was just awesome."
The good news for Broxton as he jogged in from the bullpen was Matt Stairs was, presumably, nowhere near Orange County. The bad news was the ever-dangerous David Ortiz, who had won the Home Run Derby just 24 hours earlier, was standing in the on-deck circle, menacingly taking practice swings and waiting to lead off the inning.
Ortiz yanked Broxton's first pitch through the right side of the infield. Base hit. Potential tying run at the plate. And, if Broxton had a weaker constitution, perhaps a sense of, "Here we go again."
"Not at all," Broxton said. "I still had a lot of stuff in my back pocket."
The first thing he reached for was his good fastball. He threw three of them in a row to Boston's Adrian Beltre, a player Broxton said he never met in those years when he himself was in the low minors and Beltre was the big hitter in the middle of the Dodgers' lineup. The first two were clocked at 97 mph, putting Broxton ahead 0-and-2. The third was clocked at 99, and it blew away Beltre.
Two outs to go.
That brought up Toronto Blue Jays catcher John Buck. After Broxton fell behind 3-0, Buck, who apparently was given the green light, swung through two consecutive fastballs. Broxton came back with one more fastball, and the result was the key play of the inning.
Despite the fact Ortiz isn't a fast runner and despite the fact the faster Alex Rodriguez was still sitting unused on the American League bench -- manager Joe Girardi later said he would have sent him to run for Ortiz if a second runner had reached -- Ortiz stayed in. When Buck then lifted a blooper to shallow right field, and Chicago's Marlon Byrd charged in as if he were running for his life, Ortiz had no choice but to wait halfway between first and second to see if Byrd would catch the ball.
Byrd wound up short-hopping it, but he played it perfectly and fired a strike to Dodgers shortstop Rafael Furcal, who was standing on second base, to force Ortiz.
"I think [the throw] beat him by a foot," Furcal said. "It was pretty close."
Broxton, who would later admit he got a huge emotional lift from that play, needed only one more pitch to finish it off. It was a 99-mph fastball that Texas' Ian Kinsler somehow made contact with, popping it up to center. Arizona's Chris Young gathered it in easily, setting off the sort of celebration the NL hadn't enjoyed since 1996, when Broxton was 12 years old.
"I couldn't tell you where it was or who was in it," Broxton said.
It was in Philadelphia, and a Dodgers catcher, Mike Piazza, was the most valuable player. But nobody cared much about that in the NL clubhouse on Tuesday night, and Broxton didn't care about anything in the more recent past, either. Those two October implosions against the Phillies, that nationally televised four-run choke job against the New York Yankees a little more than two weeks ago, all of that stuff means nothing now, even if the crowd of reporters gathered at his locker kept bringing it up.
Broxton wasn't going to suffer another meltdown. Not on this night. Not even, to hear Byrd tell it, if they hadn't gotten Ortiz at second.
"It would've just been first and second," Byrd said. "We had Broxton out there. He has proven he is one of the best closers in the game."
And now, finally, he has proven it on a national, pressure-packed stage.
Left-handed reliever Hong-Chih Kuo, who wasn't even added to the team until Sunday, admitted he was a tad nervous as he came in to pitch the fifth inning for the NL.
"Just a little bit," he said. "Kind of like my big league debut."
Kuo was brought in for that particular inning because, although Tampa Bay's Evan Longoria was due to lead off for the AL, he was to be followed by three consecutive left-handed hitters. Lefties were a combined 0-for-31 against Kuo in the first half, and they didn't get any hits off him in the All-Star Game, either.
But that isn't to say Kuo's evening was without incident.
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He began by walking Longoria. And when Minnesota's Joe Mauer followed with an easily playable tapper just to the third-base side of the mound, Kuo easily played it -- and then threw a rainbow up the right-field line, putting runners on second and third with none out and leading to an unearned run, the only one the AL would score.
"I was hoping it would break like a curveball," Kuo said.
Kuo retired New York's Robinson Cano on a sacrifice fly to left, putting the AL up 1-0, then got a second out when Mauer made a bad baserunning play and got thrown out at third on a grounder to short by Tampa Bay's Carl Crawford. At that point, Manuel came to get Kuo, bringing in right-hander Heath Bell of San Diego to face Torii Hunter, the Los Angeles Angels' right-handed-hitting center fielder.
Kuo became the seventh pitcher in All-Star history to give up at least one run while giving up no hits, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Meanwhile, Andre Ethier, the one Dodgers player who was voted in as a starter but was forced to play center field for the first time since his college days at Arizona State, handled the only ball hit his way flawlessly, a second-inning fly by Mauer. Ethier was shifted to his more familiar right field in the fifth inning when Manuel inserted Byrd in center and pulled Milwaukee's Corey Hart.
Ethier was the only NL starter to play six full innings, and he might have gone longer if Girardi hadn't brought in lefty Matt Thornton of the Chicago White Sox specifically to pitch to him with two men on in the seventh. Manuel immediately countered by sending the right-handed-hitting Young to hit for Ethier.
Ethier went 1-for-2 at the plate, pulling a single to right field off Detroit's Justin Verlander in the fifth inning.
Finally, Furcal entered the game at shortstop in the bottom of the sixth and played the rest of the way. He had only one plate appearance, working Oakland's Andrew Bailey for a walk with two outs in the seventh.
Other than the ninth-inning force on Ortiz, Furcal handled only one defensive play, a grounder from Toronto's Vernon Wells with runners on first and second in the seventh that might have been an inning-ending double play if Furcal had made the riskier move of charging it and playing it on a short hop. But instead, Furcal laid back and played it safe, leaving him only enough time to force Kinsler at second. Wainwright then struck out Hunter to end the inning, so it didn't matter.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.