ANAHEIM, Calif. — The American League’s dominance in the All-Star game had become such a joke that David Ortiz was free and easy with some pre-game trash talk, albeit of the good-natured variety, and Ichiro was pressured yet again into giving his annual pre-game inspirational speech – against his will.
The AL players clearly had a swagger about them, and relished their run of success. But the 13-year streak was put to rest on Tuesday night when Brian McCann turned on a Matt Thornton fastball for a three-run double in the seventh inning, sparking the NL to a 3-1 victory.
It was the first win for the NL since 1996. And while seven of those losses were by two runs or less, including a 4-3 defeat last season in St. Louis, the streak was on the players’ minds.
“We’ve had to answer that question the last five times for me,” said McCann, who was named the game’s MVP. “To be able to come through in a big spot was something I’ll never forget.”
NL manager Charlie Manuel, whose Phillies have been in each of the last two World Series, says he stressed the importance of the game to his players, and that home-field advantage in the Fall Classic was indeed a carrot worth reaching for.
“The last two years the Phillies have been in the World Series and it was big,” Manuel said. “Two years ago we won it when we played the Devil Rays in Philly and won three straight, we definitely did not want to go back down to Tampa and play. I think home-field advantage, definitely, it’s a big deal.”
Manuel managed the game in an unconventional manner – at least for an All-Star game. Bringing in left-handed middle reliever Hong-Chi Kuo in the fifth inning to face a string of AL left-handers, leaving established stars like Roy Halladay, Adam Wainwright and Tim Lincecum (who did not pitch) on the bench.
Then in the sixth inning, Manuel removed his own ace Roy Halladay after just 17 pitches — granted Halladay was struggling — in favor of Washington Nationals reliever Matt Capps.
Both moves were unusual considering the All-Star setting, but even though Kuo allowed an unearned run as the AL took a 1-0 lead, the moves worked out in the end.
Manuel said he thought that the streak didn’t weigh too heavily on his players’ minds, that it was of more interest to the fans and the media. But McCann’s comments on the matter were a little more revealing.
“Everybody knows that it counts,” he said. “We want to win it. We don’t come out here just to play like it’s OK to lose. Everybody in there is competitive and that’s why we’re here. We’ve been like this our whole lives. We want to win.”
And with his Atlanta Braves sitting atop the NL East, he admitted that home-field advantage was on his mind.
“It means a little more to me this year than in the past because we’re in first place,” he said. “You think about it more when you’re in that position, instead of coming here 10 games out, 12 games out.”
And for AL manager Joe Girardi, whose Yankees are among the favorites – if not THE favorites – to reach the World Series in October, he knows this was an opportunity lost.
“It’s extremely important, and whoever is in the World Series is going to have to work hard,” he said. “And ending the streak is disappointing as well, but we have an opportunity to start a new one next year.”