AL making history hard to believe
Players can't even remember last time NL won an All-Star Game
ST. LOUIS -- They're making history. They just can't remember history.
Yeah, not to suggest it's been a while since the American League lost an All-Star Game or anything, but after the AL had ripped yet another All-Star triumph off its relentless July assembly line Tuesday night, we couldn't find a single member of this year's AL All-Stars who could correctly answer the following straightforward trivia question:
Do you even remember the last time the National League won an All-Star Game?
"You know," said Joe Nathan, who might have recorded the biggest out of the AL's 4-3 win Tuesday, "I really can't."
"I think it was in 1997, wasn't it?" guessed the MVP of this game, Carl Crawford, a guy who made us proud by at least getting within a year.
Now it's not really THAT hard a question. Is it? It's not as if we were asking: What's the square root of 2,847,912? After all, the correct answer to the question none of those All-Stars could get is only 1996 -- a mere three presidential administrations ago.
But in that American League clubhouse, it turned out to be such a stumper, we might have been better off asking these men: What's the exact population of Azerbaijan?
On and on it went, nobody quite recalling, until Royals pitcher Zack Greinke decided to get sneaky -- and turn the tables on us by asking US a question.
"The last time they won one," he wondered, "who played in it?"
Hmmm. We hadn't actually done the research on THAT question yet. So we guessed -- incorrectly, by the way -- that it was at least possible that Derek Jeter had.
"Yeah," Greinke laughed. "And probably Stan Musial, too."
OK, it hasn't been THAT long. But it has been 13 years now since the NL won a game -- the longest unbeaten string in All-Star history.
It's a streak that includes 12 wins and Bud Selig's favorite All-Star tie (in 2002). And we don't care how superior you may believe the American League to be at any given moment. That's still totally ridiculous.
"For us to win 12 in a row or whatever, that's crazy," said Nathan, who has now pitched in four All-Star Games and never spent one minute in the loser's clubhouse. "When you think about the amount of talent on both sides, you would think that ONE year they're going to mix one in."
Yes, you'd think that, all right. You'd just think wrong.
The American League has won these games every way you can possibly win them. With thunder. With speed. With pitching. With defense. But to explain why they won the 2009 edition, we only need one word:
After the National League scored two second-inning runs off starter Roy Halladay in this game, seven AL relievers came stomping out of the bullpen -- and acted as though even allowing a hit could get them sentenced to 10 years of hard labor at Leavenworth.
After Prince Fielder's RBI double with two outs in the second, that AL parade of aces forgot to give up another hit to the next 18 -- count 'em, 18 -- hitters. Yep, we said 18.
In an All-Star Game.
Against the first National League lineup to roll out seven consecutive .300 hitters since 1937, no less.
Eighteen in a row. You have GOT to be kidding.
It was the second-longest string of consecutive hitters trudging back to the dugout in the history of the All Star Game -- and the longest in 41 years, since Don Drysdale, Juan Marichal, Steve Carlton and Tom Seaver retired 20 straight AL hitters in the 1968 game.
And that's some murderer's row, all right. But the group the AL rolled out there to close out this game -- Felix Hernandez in the sixth, Jonathan Papelbon in the seventh, Nathan in the eighth and some dude named Mariano Rivera in the ninth -- wasn't exactly a bunch of meatballers, either.
In fact, those last three goose-egg machines -- Papelbon, Nathan and Rivera -- have begun to turn themselves into the All-Star Game's ultimate déjà vu trio. At least one member of that threesome has pitched in the seventh, eighth or ninth inning in the AL's past six All-Star wins (and last year, all three pitched).
"And you know," Greinke observed, "that could be why no runs were scored."
Hey, excellent point.
"I think the three of us have had the opportunity to be in the last four All-Star Games together," said Papelbon, who became the fourth Red Sox pitcher in history to win an All-Star Game. "And for me, that's really special -- but especially [Tuesday]. Obviously, getting the win is great. But to pitch in front of Joe and to pitch in front of Mo -- two guys I look up to and root for and admire what they do for the role of closer -- that was very cool."
Of course, Papelbon did do something in this game that very rarely leads to this sort of postgame euphoria in his line of work:
He allowed the first hitter he faced -- Brad Hawpe -- to hit a ball over the left-field fence. But fortunately for him, the left-field fence in question happened to be slightly shorter than the Green Monster.
And even more fortunately for him, the man playing left field was Carl Crawford -- who was helpful enough to leap, reach over that fence and snatch this baseball out of Home Run Land, right in front of the AL bullpen.
"I was right there, maybe 15 or 20 feet away," said Rivera. "That was a tremendous catch. But the ball has to be a lot farther over the fence for him not to catch it. He's unbelievable, that guy."
Papelbon thereupon finished ripping off his regularly scheduled 1-2-3 inning. Then the AL finally regained the lead, for the first time since the second inning, on Curtis Granderson's spectacular turbo-driven hustle triple and Adam Jones' two-strike sacrifice fly. And it was time to turn this show over to Nathan and Rivera.
Except something shocking then happened: Nathan actually got himself in trouble.
He did get the first two outs in the eighth, to run the NL's no-hit funk to 18 straight hitters. But then he walked Adrian Gonzalez to burn that streak. And he gave up an infield hit to Orlando Hudson -- the only hit the AL pitching staff would allow to the final 24 National Leaguers who arrived at home plate.
"Boy, I screwed everything up," Nathan chuckled afterward. "If I'd known, I would have tried a lot harder to get Gonzalez and Hudson out."
All that really mattered, though, was that he got out the monstrous pinch-hitter who was stalking toward the plate to face him, with two on, two out and the game on the line.
That monster man was Ryan Howard. And while he may not remind anyone, on the surface, of Manny Mota, Howard actually has a .550 lifetime average as a pinch-hitter (11-for-20). And, with any flash of his humongous bat, he also happens to be capable of hitting a baseball that could come down in Jefferson City.
If you didn't know Joe Nathan, you might think the sight of Howard heading his way would have been downright intimidating. But not to this man. To Joe Nathan, this was "a dream." Seriously.
"It brought me back to 12 years old, playing Little League All-Stars," Nathan said. "This is why we play this game, and why we love this game. It's those situations. When you get an opportunity like that, it's kind of surreal. You take a step back and you say, 'Is this really happening?' It was a lot of fun, actually."
Well, it turned out to be a lot more fun for him than for Howard, anyway.
The first pitch was a 96 mph smokeball, just above Howard's hands. Howard took the kind of swing that rattled windows in Joplin -- and missed.
"If he'd have hit that one," Nathan said, "I'd have tipped my hat, because that was about as good a spot as I could ever put a first-pitch fastball in."
He then got Howard to chase a second 96 mph flamer, before Howard was able to wriggle the count to 2-2 by laying off two more fastballs off the plate.
Howard stepped out, then dug back in. He tapped his bat on the outside corner, then the inside corner of the plate. The organ pumped. A crowd of 46,760 witnesses summoned its loudest roar for any non-Cardinal all night. Howard pointed his bat straight toward Nathan.
It is moments like this that make All-Star Games worth playing.
Nathan reached back for his best punch-out slider, made it look just enough like a fastball for Howard to go around on a ball in the dirt, and hung one more zero on the scoreboard. It wouldn't be the last.
And that last zero would belong to The Great Mariano. Of course.
This was the eighth All-Star appearance of Mariano Rivera's astonishing career. When he arrived on the mound, he hadn't allowed a single earned run in any of them.
And he still hasn't.
It was the fourth All-Star save of Rivera's brilliant lifetime. He came in tied with Dennis Eckersley for the most All-Star saves in history. He left as the all-time leader, which is only fitting.
But Rivera, gracious as always, credited his killer set-up crew -- including the funky left-hander who kicked off this bullpen parade, some guy named Obama.
"He was great," Rivera said of the Prez and his first-pitch dirt-scraper. "NOBODY can hit that pitch."
Well, that might have been because nobody was actually allowed to swing at it. But whatever. If it was unhittable, it was a pitch that fit right in on this night, since nobody on the National League roster could hit any other pitches, either.
Not that that's anything new. If you take away one five-run inning in the 2003 game, the best hitters on the National League's portion of planet Earth are hitting .238 during the seven-game losing streak that has followed the gruesome tie in 2002.
But even more amazing is this: Mariano Rivera began pitching in All-Star Games more than a decade ago -- in 1997. The next time he pitches in a game his team loses will also be the first time.
That, by the way, is not a coincidence.
And afterward, as he packed yet another bag stuffed with yet another collection of winning All-Star gear, Rivera couldn't figure out why anybody was surprised that the league he pitches for had won yet one more of these games.
"We came here on a mission," said the greatest closer of all time of his apparently omnipotent AL All-Stars. "And that mission was accomplished."
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.
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