By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 14, 2010; D01
ANAHEIM, CALIF. -- You half-expected there to be a dogpile at the mound, plastic-covered lockers in the clubhouse, champagne spray in the air, wives and dignitaries on the field, speeches and tears on the stage. There should be a ring-fitting soon, a banner going up in center field, a 72-point headline in the morning paper: The National League has won the All-Star Game.
Such is the degree of lopsidedness in the Midsummer Classic in recent years. Such is the length of time since the NL won one of these things. Such is the unprecedented nature of witnessing the Senior Circuit earning home-field advantage for its champion in this fall's World Series.
With one swing of the bat by Atlanta Braves catcher Brian McCann, the NL ended one of the more remarkable, inexplicable runs of futility in modern baseball -- a 13-year drought in the All-Star Game, dating from the dark ages of 1996. Glory came, finally, with a 3-1 victory over the American League, in front of 45,408 fans at Angel Stadium, fueled by McCann's three-run double in the top of the seventh inning.
"All good things have to come to an end," said Philadelphia Phillies manager/philosopher Charlie Manuel, who skippered the NL team, "and tonight evidently was our night."
The game was played as baseball was still coming to terms with the passing earlier Tuesday of longtime New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, one of the towering figures of the game. His loss was marked by flags lowered to half-staff and a moment of silence before the national anthem.
If Steinbrenner were still around and at his bombastic best, Yankees Manager Joe Girardi, the AL's skipper Tuesday night, might be in fear of his job the rest of the week.
"This Time It Counts" -- the slogan MLB chose to trumpet the tying-in of home-field advantage in the World Series to the All-Star Game outcome -- in this case apparently meant the opposing managers would play matchup games with their bullpens in the middle innings, as all four runs scored not against the game's greatest pitchers, but against relatively anonymous middle relievers.
McCann, a left-handed hitter, stroked his bases-clearing double came against Chicago White Sox specialist Matt Thornton, a towering lefty chosen primarily for his success against lefties. The rally had begun, innocently enough, with a one-out single off Yankees youngster Phil Hughes by Cincinnati's Scott Rolen, who then made a heads-up base running play to motor to third on Matt Holliday's grounder up the middle. Three batters later, after Marlon Byrd battled back from an 0-2 hole against Thornton to draw a walk, McCann lined a fastball into the right field corner.
"I told [NL coaches] Bruce Bochy and Bud Black, 'I hope [Thornton] keeps the ball down and hard, because [McCann] can light him up,' " Manuel said. "He threw him a low fastball, and he clocked him."
The winning pitcher, by virtue of a strikeout of Boston's David Ortiz to end the bottom of the sixth, was Washington Nationals closer Matt Capps, his franchise's lone representative, and a pitcher who knew Ortiz only from television, having never faced him. After falling behind 2-0, Capps threw a pair of strikes to even the count, then froze Ortiz on an inside fastball.
"I talked to [Manuel] and McCann when they gave me the ball, about what I wanted to do," Capps said. "And I said if we got ahead, we'd throw a front-door sinker, and that's what I threw for strike three."
As the winning rally played out a half-inning later, Capps joined his NL teammates on the top step of their dugout, leaning against the rail. Capps and McCann grew up 30 minutes from each other in Georgia and played together on a summer league team as high schoolers. Since both were catchers at the time, one would play outfield when the other caught.
When McCann's double fell into right field, Capps pumped his fists and pointed at his former summer league teammate.
"It's pretty huge" to earn home-field advantage in the World Series for the NL, Capps said. "There's at least one person in this room who's going to benefit from it."
Even the Rally Monkey, Anaheim's iconic, overcaffeinated scoreboard-mascot, couldn't will the AL to a late-inning comeback. The AL's final chance, in the bottom of the ninth, fizzled when Byrd -- a center fielder playing out of position in right -- threw out Ortiz at second base on a blooper that fell in front of him.
"Once it started coming down, I made the decision to let it drop, and spin and fire," Byrd said. "If I dove [and missed], it would have been second and third. If I kept it front of me, it would only be first and second. I wanted to keep the double play in order."
The pitching-dominated game fit nicely into the overarching theme of this season, which has been dubbed the year of the pitcher for the series of dazzling performances on the mound in the first half.
Manuel had a plan that, on its surface, seemed almost infallible: two innings of Jiménez, followed by two innings of Florida's Josh Johnson (1.70 ERA this year), another inning or two from Philadelphia's own Roy Halladay (seven complete games, one perfect game this season) -- then matchups in the late innings with a relief corps that featured an unprecedented three set-up men (lefties Arthur Rhodes of Cincinnati and Hong-Chih Kuo of Los Angeles, and right-hander Evan Meek of Pittsburgh) and no fewer than four closers.
But Manuel altered his strategy in the fifth, when, with the heavily left-handed bottom of the AL order coming to the plate, he bypassed Halladay and called upon one of his lefties, Kuo -- a bit of heavy-handed overmanaging that quickly backfired.
Kuo walked his first batter, the right-handed-hitting Evan Longoria, then, on a dribbler back to the mound by Joe Mauer, uncorked one of the wildest throws in all-star history -- a wobbly, sailing, air-mailed heave that nearly soared all the way into the stands. Suddenly, there were runners on second and third with no outs. And then, just as suddenly, it was 1-0, AL on top, when Robinson Canó lifted a sacrifice fly to deep left.
While the humble middle relievers fell flat, at least the brilliant collection of starting pitchers -- the majority of them baby-faced and laser-armed -- did not disappoint, for either league.
On the AL side, starter David Price, the Tampa Bay Rays' talented lefty, threw 22 fastballs out of 23 pitches -- a couple of them clocking in at 99 mph -- in two scoreless innings. New York's Andy Pettitte, like all of his Yankee teammates wearing a black armband on the left sleeve of his jersey in honor of Steinbrenner, struck out two of the three batters he faced in the third. Lefty Cliff Lee, newly acquired by the Texas Rangers, needed only six pitches to toss a 1-2-3 fourth.
"It's not something you'd look forward to facing every day," said Andre Ethier of the Los Angeles Dodgers, in regards to the AL's pitching staff. "You're not going to be digging in and getting overconfident facing those guys."
Dominant pitching was accompanied to this prom by its longtime mate, outstanding defense. Seattle Mariners right fielder Ichiro Suzuki glided into the gap to make a fine, running snag of an Albert Pujols rocket in the first. Milwaukee Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun made a diving catch of Josh Hamilton's sinking liner in the fourth.
And finally, with the NL clinging to victory with one out in the ninth, Byrd made his pivotal play to throw out the lumbering Ortiz. "Wrong place, wrong time," Ortiz said, "wrong guy." One batter later -- with Yankees superstar Alex Rodriguez, one of Girardi's few remaining players, inexplicably tethered to the bench -- it was over.
There was no dogpile, no champagne, no speeches. But no one would have been surprised if there were.