PHOENIX — The gate to the home bullpen swung open in the top of the fourth inning, and the man who would become the winning pitcher in the 82nd All-Star Game jogged to the mound, goggles over his eyes, the Fugees blaring over the loudspeakers, a couple of runners on base, two outs. What followed, perpetrated by one of the most anonymous participants on one of baseball’s biggest stages, may have set a new standard for an old baseball tradition: the vultured win.
With the National League trailing by a run, the begoggled pitcher, Washington Nationals reliever Tyler Clippard, gave up a sharp single to left field to the first and only batter he faced, but was bailed out by a strong throw to the plate and a nice tag to end the inning.
Moments later, when Milwaukee Brewers slugger Prince Fielder jacked a three-run homer to left-center field, Clippard became the pitcher of record. And when the NL put the finishing touches on a 5-1 victory in front of 47,994 fans, Clippard, his entire night’s work consisting of three pitches, all fastballs, became the winner (1-0).
The victory, the NL’s second in a row after going 13 years without a win, earned home field advantage in the World Series for the league’s champion — a perk that has been linked to the All-Star Game outcome since 2003.
Clippard, Washington’s lone all-star, became the second straight Nationals reliever to “vulture” a win — defined loosely as “to earn a win while contributing virtually nothing to the cause” — in the All-Star Game, following Matt Capps in 2010. Though at least Capps, who also faced only one batter, struck his man out.
“It was the definition of a vulture,” Clippard said of his win. “I’ll take it.”
The AL had taken a 1-0 lead in the top of the fourth when Boston’s Adrian Gonzalez homered off Philadelphia’s Cliff Lee — the first homer in an All-Star Game since 2008. To that point, the Phillies’ righty-lefty tandem of Roy Halladay and Lee were working on a mini-perfect game: 11 up, 11 down. But three batters later, after Lee gave up consecutive two-out singles, NL Manager Bruce Bochy of the San Francisco Giants lifted him in favor of Clippard.
The batter was Texas Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre, and Clippard quickly got ahead with a pair of strikes. But Clippard’s third pitch stayed over the plate, and Beltre smashed it to left field.
“I was trying to elevate a fastball, and I didn’t get it high enough,” Clippard said. “It wasn’t a well-executed pitch by any means.”
But left fielder Hunter Pence of the Houston Astros charged, scooped up the ball and fired a strong throw home, beating the baserunner, Toronto’s Jose Bautista, to the plate. There would be no Pete Rose-Ray Fosse collision here — the game may “count” now, but no need in getting anyone hurt. Instead, Bautista executed a meek, feet-first slide into the glove of Atlanta catcher Brian McCann for the third out. Clippard walked off the mound emotionlessly, almost certainly aware his night was over.
In the bottom half of the inning, with a pair of runners on, Fielder, who would be named the game’s most valuable player, unloaded on a 2-2 pitch from Texas lefty C.J. Wilson, driving it over the wall in left-center for a three-run homer. And when the top of the fifth opened, there was a new pitcher for the NL.
Clippard’s line: one batter faced, one hit. Earning an all-star win without retiring a batter is rare, but not unprecedented. In fact, another Washington pitcher, lefty Dean Stone of the old Senators, earned the win in 1954 when, after entering to face Duke Snider with two outs in the eighth, Red Schoendienst was caught trying to steal home, ending the inning — and Stone’s night.
Much of this week's pre-game buildup centered on the many players who pulled out with injuries, and the pitchers who were disqualified by virtue of having started on Sunday. Perhaps most notably, the AL was without five of the best pitchers in the league — Jon Lester, CC Sabathia, Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez and David Price. And in the first inning, they lost another ace when Boston’s Josh Beckett, warming up in the bullpen to pitch the second inning, felt soreness in his left knee and was immediately scratched.
Partly as a result, the pitchers who gave up runs for the AL in the decisive middle innings included Wilson, a starter, and relievers Jordan Walden (Angels) and Brandon League (Mariners), a trio with a combined career record of 55-55.
The NL, quite simply, had better pitching at its disposal, and in this pitching-dominated baseball season, that was the difference. San Diego Padres closer Heath Bell, who arrived at the mound in a full-bore sprint punctuated by spectacular feet-first slide, collected the final out of the eighth, and black-bearded San Francisco Giants closer Brian Wilson secured the final two outs of the ninth for the save.
“I practiced a couple of times — on my lawn, last week,” Bell said of his showy entrance. “I’m not going to do anything stupid — at least without practicing first.”
And at the center of all those great pitchers was Clippard, perhaps not the brightest star in this sky — “I’m not on ESPN, ever,” he said — but the only one with a “W” next to his name in the box score Tuesday night.
Someday, perhaps he will tell his children or grandchildren the story of how he took the win in an All-Star Game. He will not embellish it.
“I’m going to say I grooved an 0-2 heater to Beltre,” Clippard said, “and Hunter Pence threw the guy out at the plate, and I vultured a win. I don’t think that story gets any better.”