By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
ST. LOUIS, July 14 -- The fatal flaw in baseball's much-dissected decision to award home-field advantage in the World Series to the winner of the all-star game-- a rule that was instituted in a fit of frustration over the infamous tie game of 2002 and kept because, well, some powerful people liked it -- was revealed yet again on a pleasant summer night at Busch Stadium. It would be easier to convince folks of the inherent fairness of the midsummer classic's World Series tie-in if it weren't for this minor problem:
The National League is not allowed to win.
And so, come the end of October, the World Series will begin yet again in the home park of the American League representative -- and at this point, they might as well just make the policy permanent -- following the AL's 4-3 win Tuesday night, its 12th in the last 13 all-star games, including the tie.
After a pregame ceremony built around President Obama's ceremonial first pitch and a first half when all eyes were on hometown hero Albert Pujols (who went a disappointing 0 for 3 with a crucial error in the field), the late innings turned on three virtuoso flourishes played on three of the AL's most reliable instruments -- Carl Crawford's glove, Curtis Granderson's legs and Joe Nathan's right arm.
In the bottom of the seventh inning of a 3-3 game, Crawford, the Tampa Bay Rays' left fielder, leaped at the wall to steal a home run from Brad Hawpe -- a play spectacular enough to earn Crawford the game's most valuable player honors.
"I've tried to do that a bunch of times," Crawford said of the over-the-wall catch, "but if I've ever pulled it off, it was so long ago I can't even remember it."
Granderson, meantime, fashioned the winning run out of a frantic sprint around the bases on a triple into the gap in right-center, then an easy dash home two batters later on a sacrifice fly by Baltimore's Adam Jones.
Finally, in a confrontation that served as both the game's emotional centerpiece and the NL's last, best chance to pull out a win, Nathan, the Twins closer, found himself protecting a one-run lead in the bottom of the eighth, facing a two-on, two-out jam, and watching the hulking frame of Philadelphia Phillies slugger Ryan Howard striding to the plate as a pinch hitter. The crowd of 46,760, recognizing Howard as a St. Louis product, rose and roared in anticipation.
"When you get an opportunity like that, it's kind of surreal," Nathan said. "You take a step back and say, 'Is this really happening?' "
Nathan blew a couple of fastballs past Howard, each drawing discernible "oooh's" from the crowd, then struck him out on a 2-2 slider in the dirt that went about 58 feet.
Since the 2002 tie in Milwaukee, and the resulting decision to attach home-field advantage in the World Series to the outcome, the all-star game has seen all sorts of drama -- comebacks, 15-inning marathons, and a total now of seven games decided by a combined 12 runs. The only thing it has not seen is an NL victory. And at this point, it is fair to wonder if it ever will.
"We came here to do a job, and to see the guys battling and fighting -- why not?" said New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, who gained his record-setting eighth all-star save by pitching a 1-2-3 ninth. "This is the all-star game. It means something."
A parade of young pitchers -- Zack Greinke, Edwin Jackson, Félix Hernández and Jonathan Papelbon, none older than 28 -- seized control of the game for the AL in the middle innings. At one point, AL pitchers retired 18 batters in a row on a mere 48 pitches -- including Pujols twice on grounders, and Washington Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman twice on fly balls.
The ease with which the AL pitchers plowed through the NL lineup also served as a reminder of the giant hole in its middle -- where Manny Ramírez ought to be. Ramírez, the Los Angeles Dodgers star, seemed on pace earlier this season to make a 12th straight all-star team, only to have his first half derailed by a 50-game drug suspension.
"The parity between the leagues is getting a little better every year," Zimmerman said. "Because of the DH, they have a few more bats on [the AL] side, but every year the gap is getting narrower."
Could his absence wind up costing the NL West-leading Dodgers a shot at home field advantage in the World Series? Nah, this is the all-star game. The NL would have found a way to lose anyway.