Commentary

Winning feeling finally returns for NL

Tired of losing year after year, a group of old hands lead the way past AL

Originally Published: July 13, 2010
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Maybe you've heard stories from old men in rocking chairs about All-Star Games like this -- about All-Star Games won by that team known as "the National League."

There had, in fact, been games like that, you know. The history books tell us there had. They just happened a long, long, long, long, lonnnggggg time ago. That's all.

We were still in the first Bill Clinton administration the last time the National League won an All-Star Game. Guys like Tony Pena (Sr.) and Brett Butler were still active players the last time the National League won an All-Star Game. Gasoline cost $1.10 a gallon the last time the National League won an All-Star Game.

It was 1996, friends. Practically a decade and a frigging half ago. And that is a long, long, long, long, lonnnggggg time ago -- especially in baseball years.

[+] EnlargeScott Rolen
Michael Buckner/Getty ImagesScott Rolen hustled from first to third during a game-changing seventh. Was he tired? Yes -- tired of seeing the NL losing the All-Star Game.

The last time the National League won an All-Star Game, it won it in a stadium in Philadelphia that disappeared in a dynamite dust storm six years ago. Let history record that Al Leiter threw the final pitch of that one.

But Jonathan Broxton, the man who threw the final pitch of the National League's next All-Star win on this Tuesday night in Southern California, had no recollection of that.

"I couldn't tell you anything about it," Broxton said after closing out the 3-1 NL win that ended the longest winless streak in All-Star history. "I couldn't tell you where it was at or who was in it. That's 'cause I was 12 years old. That was a long time ago, man."

Yeah, we think we mentioned that.

So OK, maybe the details were a little fuzzy for these guys about where or when or what the heck happened -- in that game and in all those other All-Star Games that didn't turn out this way. Nevertheless, the men who filled up the National League side of the box score Tuesday night -- these men who rewrote history -- were well aware that their league hadn't exactly been dominating this fun-filled little exhibition lately.

Scott Rolen -- the man who kicked off the winning seventh-inning rally -- had suited up for five of these All-Star classics before Tuesday night. And he'd never won once.

Matt Holliday -- the man whose single up the middle inspired Rolen to throw his creaky wheels into turbo drive on the way to a mad, momentum-shifting, first-to-third scramble -- had played in three of these games for the National League. And gone 0-for-3.

Brian McCann -- the man whose winning three-run double changed everything -- had suited up for four of these games. And lost all four.

So they knew. They knew all about it. "I'll be honest," McCann said. "It was getting tiresome."

But just in case they'd forgotten exactly how tiresome, just in case their memories needed any refreshing, their manager decided to remind them beforehand of what the stakes were -- again, just in case.

"I don't think I can say exactly what he said," Charlie Manuel's hitting coach, Milt Thompson, reported afterward. "It was all about kicking somebody's butt, though."

And it turned out his players were actually listening. How 'bout that?

"You know Charlie," Rolen said later. "What you get from Charlie, it seems very genuine, very honest. He wears his emotions on his sleeve. And that came out in his talk."

So let's get this straight, we asked. His emotions were flying clear off his sleeve?

"Well, he wasn't crying, no," Rolen said. "I might have gone too far when I said that."

OK, so were there any curse words used?

"I don't know," Rolen said. "That's kind of our culture, so it goes over our heads. I only notice that at home."

All right, we asked finally, so how WOULD Scott Rolen describe this?

"He was very genuine and motivational," Rolen said of his manager for a day. "In his way, he kept it light, and he kept it honest, and he got some guys laughing. And it was a good feel. There were no TV cameras in the room. It wasn't for show. You know, it was him talking to guys and just saying what he felt."

[+] EnlargeFurcal & Ortiz
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireDavid Ortiz never had a chance to get to second base safely. Not with the plan Marlon Byrd had mapped out in his head.

And along the way, Rolen reported, Manuel mentioned that ever-present phrase, "long time." And the men he mentioned it to understood.

"So now," Rolen said, "I guess we're going to have to figure out something else to talk about next year."

And just in case you didn't get his drift, there can't be any segment of the population on the whole darned continent that was more ready to change the subject than the National League All-Stars.

"We were just talking about this in here," McCann said. "The National League, we think, has some great young talent. A lot of us in here are close friends. We know what happened. But it's hard to answer those questions. I can't really tell you why it happened or what it means. I'm just glad we don't have to answer them anymore."

But as the top of the seventh inning arrived on this night, there was no reason to think the end of those questions was any nearer than it had been in 1998 or 2003 or last July in Busch Stadium.

After six innings, the NL found itself on the wrong end of a 1-0 score. And had gotten one runner into scoring position all night. And, if you wanted to rewind that All-Star clock, had scored in exactly one of its previous 23 All-Star innings -- baking doughnuts in the final seven innings in Yankee Stadium in 2008, eight of the nine innings last summer in St. Louis and then the first six in Anaheim.

But then Rolen lined a one-out single to center off Phil Hughes. And when Holliday followed with a bouncer up the middle, Rolen fired up his 35-year-old engines and never stopped, going first to third on local hero Torii Hunter.

"That's the way I was taught to play the game," the Reds third baseman said. "In that kind of situation, going first to third is a big deal in my mind. So I took a chance, and it worked out. The throw was up the line, and nothing blew out on me. So it was all good."

Two hitters later, Cubs outfielder Marlon Byrd would keep the inning churning by working a dramatic two-out walk -- after falling behind 0-and-2 against White Sox smokeballer Matt Thornton. And so the bases were loaded for Brian McCann.

Thornton was on this team only because he was every left-handed hitter's worst nightmare. Left-handers were hitting .172 against him this year with precisely three extra-base hits. And McCann was batting just .233 against left-handed pitchers himself.

But after watching Thornton launch nine consecutive fastballs after trotting in from the bullpen, McCann knew what was coming.

"I sat on the fastball and got my hands going a little early," he said. "And I got a pitch to handle. And luckily, I didn't miss it."

It came roaring in at 98 mph. It went roaring out into the right-field corner for the first bases-clearing double in All-Star Game history. And as three NL baserunners stampeded toward the dugout, pounding the palms of everyone in sight, McCann stood on second base, thinking: "When you start playing baseball, you dream about stuff like this."

But this game wasn't over yet. Not even close.

[+] EnlargeBrian McCann
Kirby Lee/US PresswireBrian McCann dreamed of a night like this, when he'd get the big hit in an All-Star Game.

Minutes later, Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright would find himself in the middle of a heart-pounding two-on, one-out jam, as the ballpark erupted all around him. And heading for the plate was Toronto's Vernon Wells -- who had just gone 2-for-2, with two homers, off Wainwright in an interleague duel last month.

"I told Vernon after I gave up those homers, 'I'll be ready for you next time,'" Wainwright said. "It's funny, but somehow I knew I was going to face him again."

This time, he got what should have been an inning-ending double-play ball. Except shortstop Rafael Furcal gave second baseman Brandon Phillips an off-line feed that made that DP unturnable. So the next thing Wainwright knew, he was still in a first-and-third mess. And the hitter waiting for him this time was Hunter, the most beloved figure in the ballpark.

Flashbulbs popped. Thousands stood. Every occupant of both benches leaned against the dugout railings. Up on both giant video boards, the Rally Monkey was hopping. It was quite a moment -- but not one that intimidated the man on the mound.

"I fed off it," Wainwright said. "That's the kind of situation I really, really love. And who better to do it against than the hero of this town?"

The count went to 1-and-1. Then Wainwright reached back and threw two unhittable cutters past Hunter. And as Adam Wainwright stomped off the mound, the oohs ringing in his ears, his pulse rate felt as if it had just swelled to about a thousand beats a minute.

"That was definitely one of the highlights of my career," he said. "It was so much fun, and especially to do it for a team that hadn't won one of these games for a while. I know it was just the seventh inning. But it felt like I was closing something out in a postseason series. That's how big it felt. … My adrenaline was on a par with anything I've ever felt."

Ah, but there was still one last ninth-inning crisis to escape. A David Ortiz leadoff single would get the monkey back on the scoreboard, the crowd back on its feet and the tying run back to the plate. But with AL manager Joe Girardi saving his last position player, Alex Rodriguez, to pinch hit, it left Ortiz to fend for himself on the bases. And that plan didn't work out so well.

John Buck would bloop a Broxton fastball in front of Byrd in right field. But amazingly, that did NOT mean it was a hit. Byrd saw it all unfold in his brain before it even unfolded on the field. And his brain had this one figured out exactly right.

He knew he couldn't dive, he said, "because then it's second and third, automatic." So the little voice in his mind told him to "lay back, let it hit to the side of me, field it and spin." And that's exactly the way it all went down:

The bounce. The grab. The spin. The bullet to second. And one slowpoke-ish Big Papi getting called out at second, 9-to-6 on the old scorecard.

It was the first time any right fielder had thrown out a runner at second for an All-Star forceout since Al Kaline nailed Frank Robinson in 1957. And it meant this game was one pitch from being history. Broxton then reared back, fired one last 99 mph infernoball, watched Chris Young run down Ian Kinsler's rope to center and knew The Streak was no more. 'Bout time.

"It was a long streak, but it's an aberration," Rolen said. "I don't understand it. I don't have an answer for it. But I'm convinced it's an aberration."

Well, he may be right. Or he may be wrong. Maybe history will prove it was an aberration. Or maybe history will prove it was an abomination. But all these men knew Tuesday night was that there was only one word that truly described this streak that had once seemed as if it might never end. And it was the only word that mattered.

The Streak was (uh-one, uh-two, uh-three, all together now) …

Over.

Finally.

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 available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com