By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 15, 2010; D04
Nobody ever tells the truth about a losing streak until it's over.
Every July, the National Leaguers would say, "No, we're not too upset that we haven't won the all-star game since 1996," whether they were in St. Louis or New York, San Francisco or Pittsburgh, Detroit or Houston, Chicago or Milwaukee, Seattle or Atlanta, Boston, Denver or Cleveland. And they were always lying.
There's no gorilla on our backs, they'd say. Then, with an ominous quiet, they'd say: We are not from an inferior league.
All that's over now. After Brian McCann's three-run double off Matt Thornton of the White Sox sent the NL to a 3-1 win Tuesday night, the relief and glee spread across 34 faces.
You haven't seen this many ballplayers all released from mortification simultaneously since 1983, when Fred Lynn couldn't stop smiling after his grand slam at old Comiskey Park ended an 11-year American League drought.
"Once you're a National League guy and you play in this league your whole career, then the All-Star Game matters to you," said Atlanta's McCann, who is just 26 years old but has already been an NL all-star five times and is probably headed to one of the game's finest catching careers. "Every one of us has had to answer the same question every year. 'You keep losing. You keep losing.' You want to put an end to that. And we did . . .
"The four [all-star] games before this were all one-run games. It's not like they are coming out here and destroying us. So it's nice to get the monkey off your back."
Then McCann thought about how his Braves were in first place in the NL East and as promising a World Series candidate this season as anybody. "And it's nice to get the home-field advantage in the Series," he said. "We're in a good spot."
Seldom does one player have two chances to be the sole hitting hero of this summer staple. When McCann came to the plate in the seventh inning with the bases loaded and the AL ahead 1-0, he had the fresh memory of failure in mind. Two innings before, he had watched his long fly ball, which looked like a three-run homer when it left the bat, die in the Southern California air at the very base of the right field wall.
"I just put my head down and prayed that it got into the seats," he said.
But it didn't. So Justin Verlander and his 97-mph fastball were off the hook.
The left-handed McCann's second task was even harder: the 98-mph southpaw heat of Thornton, who got ahead 0-1.
"Against someone who throws that hard, you have to trust your hands," said McCann, who has more than 100 homers and 400 RBI in his career and three Silver Slugger awards, a spectacular early-career pace for an excellent defensive catcher.
In the NL dugout, Manager Charlie Manuel was drawling that, "if Thornton throws him another low fastball . . . " But the words never got out of his mouth before McCann lashed the ball into the right field corner, started the merry-go-round of runners and, perhaps, began tilting baseball back toward parity between the leagues.
The NL had other heroes. As soon as the final out was recorded, the first player out of the dugout to shake the hands of the players on the field was the Nationals' Matt Capps. His strikeout of slugger David Ortiz to bail Roy Halladay out of a sixth-inning jam set him up for a one-third-of-an-inning victory -- a win as rare in its brevity as it was precious to him.
There's no baseball tradition for winning pitchers to be the first man out of the dugout.
"I was just pumped up," Capps said sheepishly. "It's an absolute honor."
So, in the permanent all-star record book, Capps, as winning pitcher, will now have his name printed in all caps.
Thus, the reliever with 24 saves became the first player from Washington to leave an appreciable mark -- granted not a terribly large one -- since Frank Howard hit a home run in the '69 All-Star Game at RFK Stadium.
"The way the Nationals have treated me, going back to this winter [when the Pirates let him become a free agent], I'm proud to represent them," Capps said. "It's pretty cool to be part of the first win since '96."
This game wasn't safe until the last of the night's Yankee blunders -- on the day of owner George Steinbrenner's death -- was in the books. The losing pitcher was New York's Phil Hughes, who was knocked out in the sixth after getting just one out and was charged with the first two NL runs.
However, in the ninth inning, Yankees Manager Joe Girardi seemed at loose ends. The AL manager let the game end without getting an at-bat for his final substitute: none other than the most expensive of all Steinbrenner's Yankees, Alex Rodriguez, who had far more career homers than any player on either team. Don't go through the rationalizations. You don't end a two-run defeat with a man on first base and A-Rod on the bench. He hits. Somebody else, anybody else, doesn't.
Girardi's worst backfire, however, was failing to pinch-run for the slow Ortiz after a leadoff hit in the ninth. Again, don't belabor the strategic permutations. With a 34-man roster, you don't leave whales adrift on the basepaths in the last inning or the game will gaffe 'em.
And Ortiz's bad base-running cost the AL. With one out, John Buck sent what should have been a bloop hit into shallow right field. But the Cubs' Marlon Byrd fielded the ball on one hop, spun and fired a strike to second base -- and got a close forceout on the lost-soul Ortiz. Anybody but Big Papi makes it.
"I didn't want to take a chance on diving for the catch, missing and ending up with runners on second and third," said Byrd, who played center for the Nationals in '06 and thought his career might be over after he was released that winter. "It wasn't about Ortiz being the runner. It was about knowing you had a two-run lead and not wanting to take a chance. I let it drop, spun and fired."
In the gasp of shock that went through the Angelic ballpark, you could hear a losing streak coming to an end.
Baseball has been ill-served for decades by an all-star game that, through no one's fault, has been a lopsided embarrassment for the American League in the '60s, '70s and '80s and, to just as ridiculous a degree for the National League during the '90s and '00s with a 3-18-1 mark entering this game.
"I really can't explain the streak," NL coach Bud Black said. "And if anybody can, please tell me because I'd like to know what's been going on."
Nobody can. But it's finally over. By next summer, maybe the MLB catch phrase, "This time it counts," will stop sounding like a bad PR joke and actually become an enticement to watch.
For nearly 50 years, the all-star game has always felt lopsided and seldom lived up to its promise. It's been the sport's mid-summer anticlimax. But nothing lasts forever, even bad luck. If the only Nat in town can win this game, who knows what's next?