NL pitchers serve up extra cheese
Powerful young arms bring the heat to silence potent American League lineup
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Dennis Eckersley retired as a player in 1998, but one of his wittiest gifts to the baseball lexicon endures. As the National League bullpen reflected on its shutdown performance following a 3-1 All-Star Game victory Tuesday night, there were several references to a certain dairy product synonymous with Wisconsin. The Eck would have been proud.
"You're pretty much getting the cheese ball from us, and that's it,'' said Giants closer Brian Wilson. "If you're going to swing and you hit it, congratulations.''
"I was out there joking, 'Everybody on this team throws ched, and I'm going out there and throwing 91-92 [mph]. This sucks,''' Bell said. "That's like a changeup for these other guys.''
There's a school of thought that if the National League is going to start winning All-Star Games and World Series and holding its own in interleague play, it will be the byproduct of all those live young arms populating NL rosters. They were on display at both the front and the back end Tuesday night in Anaheim -- and Tim Lincecum didn't even make it into the game.
Ubaldo Jimenez and Josh Johnson, the current 1-2 contenders for the NL Cy Young Award, threw four shutout innings out of the chute against a stacked American League lineup. Johnson was particularly impressive in the third inning, retiring Carl Crawford on a soft liner to third base and then striking out Ichiro Suzuki and Derek Jeter.
After Atlanta catcher Brian McCann gave the Nationals a 3-1 lead with a bases-clearing double in the seventh, manager Charlie Manuel decided it was lockdown time. He summoned 13-game winner Adam Wainwright, who pitched out of a first-and-third jam to preserve the lead.
"I could have been ready in five or six pitches,'' Wainwright said. "I was ready to rock. I had some serious adrenaline rolling that I had to try to control. And for the most part, I did that.''
Wainwright was followed by Wilson, he of the Mohawk haircut, water serpent tattoo and air of supreme confidence. Two weak groundouts and a popout later, the stage was set for Dodgers closer Jonathan Broxton, whose average fastball this season (95.3 mph) is just a tick slower than Wilson's (96.1).
Broxton flirted with danger in the ninth, allowing a single to David Ortiz and what should have been a base hit by Toronto catcher John Buck. But when he needed to bring the cheese, it arrived on cue. Broxton whiffed Adrian Beltre on three straight fastballs -- 97, 97 and 99 -- and induced a game-ending flyout from Ian Kinsler on another 99-mph fastball.
"That's my bread and butter,'' Broxton said. "That's my heater. That's why I'm here. If I have to reach back and get some more, I can.''
Said Kinsler: "He can throw 94-95 for strikes. Then he knows if he gets into a little bit of a jam, he can hump up and throw a little bit harder. That's a little something special to have in your back pocket.''
We have young arms, we have great pitching, and we're sick and tired of the American League winning. It's a huge honor to be on the team that broke the streak. We're planning on starting our own streak now.” -- Padres closer Heath Bell
Nevertheless, the best bullpen performances are a collaborative effort, and perhaps the best human interest story in Anaheim came courtesy of Heath Bell. He showed up at Monday's media session with his father, Jim, a former U.S. Marine who's been fighting lung cancer since January. For the better part of an hour, Heath Bell entertained the media with his typical candor and humor, and Jim filled notebooks with sincerity. They were just a proud father and a loving son, reveling in the moment.
Before Tuesday's game, Jim Bell gave his son his Marine dog tags. The gesture meant the world to Heath, who found a chain, draped it around his neck and wore the tags in the bullpen. He derived strength from them when the bullpen doors opened and he sprinted to the mound in the fifth inning.
"I think that's why I ran like 300 miles an hour out to the mound,'' Bell said. "I usually run pretty quick, but this time I flew.''
Three pitches later, Bell retired Torii Hunter on a routine fly ball to end an American League threat and do his part for the bullpen. The performance was especially gratifying since he grew up in Southern California and aspired to pitch for the Angels one day.
Now Bell is just a dog-tag-wearing, quote-dispensing grunt who helped give the National League its first All-Star win since 1996. It felt pretty darned good.
"We have young arms, we have great pitching, and we're sick and tired of the American League winning,'' Bell said. "It's a huge honor to be on the team that broke the streak. We're planning on starting our own streak now."