CINCINNATI — It is a ridiculous endeavor to evaluate baseball players on one night, and the contours of the season discourage it in every way. But once every July — when the regular action stops, the silt filters out and all that’s left are the shiniest stones — we are forced into that situation. In the All-Star Game, the daily flow that defines the season — get ’em the next time, get ’em the next day — completely evaporates.
But there’s no denying the symbolism Tuesday night at Great American Ball Park before the 86th version of the All-Star Game was even a batter old. Mike Trout, the center fielder for the Los Angeles Angels, served as the leadoff hitter for the American League. He faced Zack Greinke, the right-hander from the crosstown Dodgers who hadn’t given up a run in a month.
And when Trout lashed at a fastball on the outside part of the plate, Bryce Harper moved back on the ball, back toward the fence. Harper, the National League’s right fielder and Washington Nationals star, has been the best player in the game over the first half of the season. But here he was, watching Trout take the spotlight and flip it to the opposite coast.
“It just kept going,” Harper said.
Trout’s leadoff homer was the catalyst for a 6-3 American League victory, and he followed it with a walk and another run scored in four at-bats, earning his second consecutive MVP award on this stage. Fair or not, in this litmus test event, his performance will be cast against that of Harper, who entered the majors in 2012 and was instantly compared Trout, his contemporary. Who is the face of the game? Who would you choose to build a team around?
“I just try to . . . stay in my own lane and do what I need to do,” Harper said afterward. “Trout’s Trout, and I’m Bryce. No worries.”
When you’re 22 and in this event for the third time, why worry, even if Trout showed his appeal again, even as Harper’s one night as the NL’s centerpiece — he hit third — ended without a sizzling moment to match his gold cleats or the red-and-blue shoes, monogrammed with “BH”, that he wore in the pregame parade downtown. Harper went 0 for 3 with a pair of strikeouts, including against Orioles lefty Zach Britton in the sixth, when he sent one shot just foul down the left-field line before flailing at a changeup down and away.
In those three All-Star Games, Harper is now 0 for 6 with a walk and three strikeouts. A year ago in Minneapolis, when Harper didn’t make the team, the night belonged to Derek Jeter, the retiring Yankee great, but Trout quietly won the MVP award. He is now 5 for 10 with two doubles, a triple, a homer and three RBI as an all-star.
“I don’t know if I’m as locked in as I am during the season,” Harper said. “You go up there, of course you want to do your things and try to get some base knocks and try to win a game. But you have that urge to try to go deep and hit it as far as you can. It’s a little bit different during the season, when you’re trying to have quality at-bats.”
That is what Trout had against Greinke, who hadn’t given up a run since June 13, a stretch of 32 2/3 consecutive innings. During that time, he had 31 strikeouts and three walks, and opposing hitters hit .131 against him. He started Trout with a fastball, which he took — his typical approach. Trout then fouled off a slider, and then laid off another 94-mph heater.
“First couple pitches, you get so excited,” Trout said. “It’s the All-Star Game. Who don’t get excited?”
At 1-2, Greinke came back with a fastball on the outside part of the plate. Most right-handed hitters would be happy fouling such a pitch away. Trout — whose last three seasons have resulted in MVP finishes of second, second and first — could drive it.
“He’s one of the best hitters in the game,” NL catcher Buster Posey of the San Francisco Giants said. “It wasn’t that bad of a pitch. He just took a good swing at it.”
So Harper went back, feeling for the wall. “It had that backspin, like he usually does, and it kept going,” Harper said. It snuck into the front row, and the AL had a lead it never relinquished.
From there, the game took the form of the season — and, indeed, the era — with pitchers dominating. If not for Trout, the game might be remembered for the Mets’ Jacob deGrom striking out the side on 10 pitches, or for Reds closer Aroldis Chapman punching out all three men he faced, jacking the radar gun up to an almost inconceivable 103 mph. Of the 16 pitchers who appeared in the game, only two failed to record a strikeout, and the scorecard was littered with 24 Ks by night’s end.
“I can’t describe how I feel,” Chapman said.
Trout has never excelled at describing his feelings publicly, either. He was in the middle of the AL’s fifth-inning rally against the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, legging out a fielder’s choice, then scoring on Prince Fielder’s single. He drew a leadoff walk in the seventh — making him the only player to get four plate appearances in the game — and came out for a pinch runner, who eventually scored on Fielder’s sacrifice fly. His response?
“It’s obviously a humbling honor with the MVPs,” he said.
The result, of course, means the winner of the American League pennant will have home-field advantage in the World Series. The Angels and the Nationals entered the break in first place, and each has designs on winning the whole thing.
Should that matchup materialize — and there are 70 games and two rounds of the playoffs before that — we would get Trout and Harper, and the comparisons would fly once again. But here’s one thing they had in common Tuesday night, even as their performances skewed in opposite directions.
As all-star after all-star left the game, they showered and, in many cases, bolted for airports, many taking private jets in search of some sort of midseason break. Harper and Trout each exited the game in the seventh. And when Minnesota closer Glen Perkins recorded the final out, each was still in the dugout, soaking it all in.
“Why would I leave?” Harper said. “I love this.”
There’s lots to love, in part because the evaluation of a baseball season, much less a baseball career, can’t be made in one night.