AL rallies past NL on late Blalock homer


CHICAGO -- There is widespread opinion that attaching home-field advantage to the winning league in the All-Star Game was a stunt by Major League Baseball, a pathetic attempt to make up for last year's embarrassing debacle. But if Garret Anderson happens to be standing in Edison Field in Game 7 of this year's World Series, he probably would disagree.

Anderson had three hits, including a double that spurred an eighth inning comeback for the American League. After Vernon Wells' double cut the National League's lead to a run, the Rangers' Hank Blalock slugged a two-run homer off Dodgers reliever Eric Gagne, the decisive runs in the AL's 7-6 victory -- the AL's sixth consecutive victory in the Midsummer Classic.

The NL nearly rebounded in the top of the ninth, the game ending when Rafael Furcal drove a fly ball to the wall in right field -- just short of a two-run homer. Anderson, who also hit a home run and a single the night after winning the Home Run Derby, was named the Most Valuable Player.

The AL champion will have home-field advantage in the World Series, in the first season of the new format. Under the old system -- home-field advantage alternated from league to league each season -- the NL would have had home-field advantage this fall. "I'm really happy about that," said Blalock, "especially for the guys in the clubhouse who might be in the World Series."

AL Manager Mike Scioscia acknowledged he was more cognizant of possible late-inning matchups because home-field advantage was at stake, saving Blalock to hit against the NL's power relievers, John Smoltz and Gagne. But Scioscia added, "I don't think anything more was tuned up because Game 7 was on the line. I think the pride and passion of the players showed out on the field."

Major League Baseball billed this game as the All-Star Game that mattered -- This time it counts -- but there were moments when it seemed like any other midsummer exhibition.

As Esteban Loaiza opened the game pitching against leadoff batter Edgar Renteria, the National League lacked a first base coach -- until home plate umpire Tim McClelland beckoned to the NL dugout. Jim Edmonds, the second batter, hit a looper into right field and did not run hard to first, costing himself any chance for a double. Later, when NL second baseman Jose Vidro fielded a ground ball in the baseline, Anderson, the baserunner at the time, slowed to avoid any contact, rather than attempting to take out the infielder.

But the play was generally crisp and intense, the AL taking an early lead when Carlos Delgado singled home Ichiro Suzuki in the third. Roger Clemens, who pitched a scoreless inning in the top of the third in his final All-Star appearance, was briefly the pitcher of record.

Seattle's Shigetoshi Hasegawa relieved to open the fifth and walked Gary Sheffield. When Hasegawa tried pumping a high fastball past Todd Helton, the Colorado first baseman blasted a home run to center, the ball carrying more than 400 feet without any aid of light air.

After Scott Rolen singled, pinch-hitter Rafael Furcal singled with two outs, giving the NL two outs and two on and the left-handed hitting Edmonds coming to bat. Scioscia summoned left-handed reliever Eddie Guardado into the game to face Edmonds.

Baker inserted right-handed hitting Andruw Jones as a pinch-hitter, and Jones pulled a double inside the third base bag. As the ball skipped against the stands in foul territory, it ricocheted off the outstretched hands of fans, and was ruled dead by left field umpire Mark Carlson. But because Furcal had nearly reached third base when the interference occurred, McClelland ruled that Furcal would have scored and allowed his run to count. Scioscia argued, without success, but then Albert Pujols singled to left to score Jones, giving the NL a 5-1 lead.

Baker had three powerful relievers waiting to throw the last three innings, in Billy Wagner, Gagne and Smoltz, and after Jones hit a solo homer in the top of the seventh, the NL led, 6-3.

Jason Giambi anticipated a Wagner fastball and mashed a homer, cutting the NL advantage to two runs, and Scioscia's mind was whirring: If Glaus came to bat against either Gagne or Smoltz -- both right-handed -- in the last two innings, he would pinch-hit Blalock, a left-handed batter.

Gagne allowed only 23 hits, 11 walks and 10 runs in 45.1 innings before the All-Star break, striking out 76, and he converted all 31 save chances. "To look at it on paper," said Anderson, "we weren't supposed to score any runs off Gagne."

But Anderson doubled; Melvin Mora replaced him as a pinch-runner. With two outs, Wells clubbed a double into left-center field, pushing home Mora, cutting the NL lead to a run. Blalock was next, coming to bat for the first time in an All-Star Game, knowing only that Gagne likes to mix fastballs and a changeup. "Wells had just gotten on second base, so I was trying to hit a single," said Blalock. "That's all I was trying to do. Fortunately, I worked myself into a good count where I could get something to hit."

Gagne fell behind 3 balls and 1 strike, and with Bret Boone waiting on deck, Gagne challenged Blalock with a fastball -- and Blalock crushed it, driving the ball into the right field stands. Anderson, standing at the railing of the dugout, pumped a fist. "I've never seen Gagne get hit like that," said Baker.

Keith Foulke relieved for the top of the ninth, allowed a hit before Furcal drove a ball to the wall, just short, and the NL never got the ball to Smoltz. He and Jones and Furcal and the other NL contenders may regret it, come late October.

The four-run deficit marks the largest gap in a coming-from-behind for a win since 1955. That year, the AL built a 5-0 lead after six innings before losing 6-5. ... Roger Clemens' appearance was his eighth, tying the record previously held by Jim Bunning, Don Drysdale, Juan Marichal and Tom Seaver. ... When Edgar Renteria, Edmonds and Albert Pujols of the Cardinals led off the game, it was the only the fourth time the first three hitters had come from the same team. The others: the 1946 Boston Red Sox (Dom DiMaggio, Johnny Pesky and Ted Williams; the 1961 Detroit Tigers, in Game 2 (Norm Cash, Rocky Colavito); and the 1978 Reds (Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and George Foster). ... All-Star starting pitchers Loaiza and Jason Schmidt were teammates with the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1996-98. The only other All-Star Game in which two starters were former teammates was in 1941, when Bob Feller started for the AL and Whitlow Wyatt pitched for the NL. They were teammates with the Indians in 1937. ... Alex Rodriguez snapped a string of five consecutive All-Star strikeouts when he grounded out to third base in the third inning.