CLEVELAND — Perhaps someone sneaked into the bowels of Progressive Field on Tuesday and replaced the regular, turbocharged 2019 baseballs with century-old versions from the Dead Ball Era. How else to explain — in the midst of the biggest home run binge in the history of the sport, one year after the most homers ever hit in an All-Star Game and one night after the most electrifying performance in the history of the Home Run Derby — the relatively pedestrian showing in this year’s Midsummer Classic?
There is one other possible explanation, of course, and it is the one, conspiracy theories aside, that will have to suffice: There are great pitchers scattered across this game (shellshocked as they may be by the nightly home run binges), and on Tuesday night they shone brightest.
An impressive collection of nine American League pitchers threw power at power Tuesday night and came out on top, combining for a 4-3 victory that saw just one homer hit per side — below the record-setting average of 2.74 per game that has defined the Year of the Homer. The victory was the seventh in a row by the AL, its 14th in the past 17 and 19th in the past 23 All-Star Games.
No one on either side left the yard Tuesday night until the sixth inning, when Colorado Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon’s fly to right-center off Oakland A’s reliever Liam Hendriks sneaked just over the wall. An inning later, Texas Rangers slugger Joey Gallo answered with a solo shot to right off San Francisco’s Will Smith, a no-doubter that landed a dozen or so rows deep.
In the absence of supreme power, offense came mostly from the more traditional means of singles and doubles. Houston’s Michael Brantley contributed an RBI double for the AL, and Minnesota’s Jorge Polanco had an RBI infield single. The NL drew within a run in the eighth when Pete Alonso — the winner of Monday night’s dramatic Home Run Derby — singled off the glove of New York Yankees shortstop Gleyber Torres with the bases loaded, bringing home a pair of runs.
That brought into play the possibility of a third straight extra-inning affair, which this year, for the first time, would have triggered one of MLB’s new timesaving measures for exhibitions — with each half-inning beyond the ninth beginning with a runner on second base.
But Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman, perhaps the most powerful of the power pitchers on display Tuesday night, entered to pitch the ninth — unleashing fastballs as high as 99 mph and an array of nasty breaking pitches while striking out the side and earning the save.
The relative lack of power on display Tuesday night was through no shortage of full-bore, breeze-inducing swings, and even if homers were scarce, their twin scourge — strikeouts — were everywhere, 23 of them in all, 16 recorded by American League pitchers.
AL starter Justin Verlander of the Houston Astros struck out two in the first inning, and Jose Berrios (Minnesota Twins), Luis Castillo (Cincinnati Reds) and Walker Buehler (Los Angeles Dodgers) also recorded a pair of strikeouts in their lone innings of work. Shane Bieber of the Cleveland Indians did them one better, striking out the side in the fifth, and he earned a roaring standing ovation from the hometown crowd and the MVP award.
“I was told [Monday] I was going to pitch the fifth,” said Bieber, who was added to the AL team as a replacement last week. “I really just wanted to go out there and get three outs and represent the city well. This is an unbelievable experience to be here and be able to do it for the home crowd.”
Hendriks also notched three strikeouts in the sixth, sandwiched around Blackmon’s homer. Detroit’s Shane Greene, who pitched the seventh, was the only AL pitcher who failed to record at least one strikeout.
This All-Star Game represented one of the greatest collections of young baseball talent ever assembled, with 19 players age 25 or younger on the two rosters, 36 first-time all-stars and an NL lineup that averaged just over 25 years old, the youngest ever.
The starting pitchers, on the other hand, were the 36-year-old Verlander for the AL and 32-year-old Hyun-Jin Ryu of the Los Angeles Dodgers for the NL, the oldest pair of opposing starters since Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson in 2001.
Nobody who saw the field for either team was representing the Washington Nationals. Both of their selected participants — third baseman Anthony Rendon and starting pitcher Max Scherzer — withdrew to rest nagging injuries. (Scherzer, however, attended the game and was on the field for pregame introductions.)
After the introductions and the anthems and the flyover and the ceremonial first pitch, Verlander jogged to the mound, picked up the baseball — the one with the official “Robert D. Manfred Jr.” signature between the seams — and rubbed it up between the palms of his hands.
Were there any justice in the world, or any sense of comedic timing in Verlander’s mind — after engaging Manfred in a war of words this week over the alleged “juicing” of the baseballs in 2019 — he would have given up a couple of cheap, one-handed, off-balance home runs and shook his fist angrily at Manfred’s skybox. Instead, he retired the side in the first on a liner to first and two strikeouts, pumping fastballs as hard as 97 mph.
A staggering 10 homers were hit a year ago at Nationals Park — obliterating a 47-year-old All-Star Game record — in the AL’s 8-6, 10-inning win.
But long fly balls died on the warning track Tuesday, and line drives to the outfield, rather than sailing over the walls, mostly crashed into them.
As the contest careened on, the managers — Boston’s Alex Cora for the AL, the Dodgers’ Dave Roberts for the NL — shifted their infielders against pull hitters, challenged bang-bang plays on the bases and brought in a parade of pitchers, most of them strapping young men with rockets for arms.
In the homer-happy 2019 version of baseball, pitchers don’t win the day as often as they once did, or as often as they might like. But for one night in July, in a game that didn’t count, they did.
Correction: A previous version of the story incorrectly stated that Joey Gallo hit a home run off Brandon Woodruff. The homer came on a pitch by Will Smith.