2014 MLB All-Star Game has more meaning than you would think for playoff aspirants


Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout celebrate Cabrera’s first-inning home run in front of National League catcher Jonathan Lucroy. (Jesse Johnson/Usa Today Sports)

The All-Star Game is an exhibition game, a summer night celebration, a five-day party and a chance for a city to make a few (million) bucks while strutting its stuff before the nation. It’s also a game where a score is kept, although sometimes the scoreboard seems to be an afterthought by the mid-innings as managers try to get 30 or more players into the game per squad.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

However relaxed and convivial as this affair can seem, there are three geographic areas where the American League’s 5-3 win meant far more than any of its trappings. Maybe, by season’s end, this July score may mean as much as anything in their entire season. Those places are San Francisco/Oakland, Los Angeles and Baltimore/Washington. The league that wins the All-Star Game gets home-field advantage in the World Series. And the past five years, the team with home field also won the title.

In those five World Series, three were closed out on a home field in a Game 6 or Game 7. And in the other two series, the winner took a two-games-to-none lead at home and won the title with a one-sided stomping. Ambush ’em at your home yard to start or else close out before your howlin’ mob.

Maybe that’s why a helluva tense sure-feels-real ballgame broke out at Target Field on Tuesday. In the 12th year of this format — with the all-star winners holding an 8-3 World Series advantage so far — the players may get what’s at stake considerably more than the public.

Nike is honoring retiring Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter with a tribute ad set to air during Tuesday's All-Star Game. It's full of cameos from celebrities and athletes tipping their hats to the baseball player. (Tom LeGro/The Washington Post)

But you can bet that fans with two nearby teams in the World Series hunt really, truly understand the stakes. Near both Bays — the San Francisco and the Chesapeake — three of the four teams are in first place (A’s, Orioles and Nationals) while the other, the Giants, is in second place. In L.A., the Dodgers stand in first place while the Angels are in second place, but with the second-best winning percentage in the sport. Note that only Baltimore/D.C. (with Washington ahead of Atlanta by a percentage point) had two teams in first.

Here’s my bet: Somebody else takes the other 24 teams, I’ll take those six. That gives me four first-place teams, and two in second place, one of them playing .606 ball. I think I’ll have one or two teams in the World Series while the other person has one or none.

The current play-for-home-field format is unlike any other pro sport’s, probably because it is so capricious and maybe just unfair; after all, a 115-win team could have to give up World Series home field to an 85-win team. Actually, that’s already sort of happened twice, in 2004 when a 98-win team had home field over a 105-win team and in 2011 when a 90-win team had home field over a 96-win team.

The whole thing is a hokey gimmick dreamed up by Commissioner Bud Selig after he was embarrassed by the 2002 All-Star Game in his home town of Milwaukee that was declared a 7-7 tie because the teams ran out of pitchers. It’s had big consequences. More, probably, than were intended.

In addition to the five-year streak of all-star winning leagues also winning the World Series, there’s also been a Game 7 home-field win and two other World Series where the winner jumped to a two-game edge at home because all-star results.

The intensity of this game arrived almost instantly. The American League lineup began with four players who may end up in the Hall of Fame: Derek Jeter, Mike Trout (okay, in 20 more years), Robinson Cano who’s in prime mid-Cooperstown-career form and mighty Miguel Cabrera. They faced the Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright, who started because NL Manager Mike Matheny took his prerogatives of office a bit too literally, picking his own man over the historic figure of Clayton Kershaw.

Jeter doubled into the right field corner, Trout tripled off the right field wall and after a Cano whiff, Cabrera hit a laser liner into the third row of the left field stands for a 3-0 lead. Four legends, three runs. Kershaw pitched a perfect second inning. Maybe letting him face the AL’s best-of-the-best would have worked better. It could hardly have worked worse.

The Post Sports Live crew assesses the Nationals at the midway point of the season, and look at which players need to lead the team down the stretch to a potential National League East crown. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

The NL battled back to a 3-3 tie. Chase Utley and Jonathan Lucroy, now one of the league’s toughest outs, both had RBI doubles in the second inning. Lucroy also doubled in a fourth-inning run.

Utley’s double was a blast high off the ridiculously high 23-foot right field wall here at the 385-foot sign — a monstrous edifice that extends from the foul line to the 403 sign near dead center field. Utley’s ball would have been an upper-deck homer in Philly and a homer of some sort anywhere else.

Target Field is a lovely downtown home for the Twins, classy and comfortable if not breathtaking. But until that right field wall becomes remotely fair to hitters, especially in the 120-foot-long power-alley expanse from the 385-to-403 signs, this is a badly flawed design. Prevailing winds blow in from right field, too! Ted Williams would have had seven career home runs in this park. Okay, maybe eight. Sanity will someday be established here, just as new Tiger Stadium shortened its left field stands. Until then, the target on Target is about six spots lower on the best ballparks list.

Matheny’s bad night continued in the fifth when he called for his own Cardinal Pat Neshek, a good setup reliever, but a fellow having only his first remotely all-star worthy year. It was a sentimental loyalty pick, part old-time pick-my-own-guys all-star stuff and partly because Neshek is from the Minneapolis area. Shouldn’t those days be over now? Would the NL’s October interests have been better served with a top veteran reliever with a 0.97 ERA and 22 saves, like the Nats’ Rafael Soriano?

Neshek, who’s no doubt kind to stray dogs, got one out, but allowed three hits, including a run-scoring double from Trout, and left men on second and third with the NL behind 4-3. The Nats’ Tyler Clippard came in to clean up the mess. His second pitch was a comic wild-high curve that bounced off the backstop. Clippard calmed and got a sacrifice fly from AL hit leader Jose Altuve and a flyout by Cabrera.

But damage was done with the NL trailing, 5-3, and all five runs charged to Cardinals pitchers who, perhaps, should not have started or not been on the team. Yes, second-guessing. But maybe that’s one of the things the All-Star Game needs — more second-guessing and criticism because losing now hurts.

This was Jeter’s symbolic night, his last All-Star Game. He added to his clutch legend with a double and single in two at-bats. After a first-inning ovation, the entire Minneapolis crowd spontaneously took up the Yankee Stadium chant of “De-rek Je-ter” over and over. Very cool. When he came out of the game, the crowd sang “New York, New York” to make the Yankee captain feel at home.

What wasn’t cool was Wainwright’s in-game interview with pool reporters when he said he had deliberately grooved two pitches to Jeter — his first and third pitches — to help him get a hit.

Maybe “piping” such pitches is bush league. But what is worse is to say you did it. That ruins the very moment you conspired to create. Dope.

If the Cards, the sport’s paragon franchise, end up in the World Series, they’ll know why they don’t have home-field advantage. If somebody else represents the NL, like the Dodgers, Nats or Giants, St. Louis could send a brief condolence message.

Or the Cards could just wait to receive those lovely “thank you” notes in the mail from AL fans, perhaps located in Los Angeles, Baltimore or a grateful Oakland.

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