07/13/05 12:42 AM ET
Balance of power swings toward AL
Stacked All-Star lineup indicative of growing advantage over NL
Overall, yes the National League still leads, due to a long stretch of dominance from the mid-1960s into the early 1980s. But this is not your father's All-Star Game. With its 7-5 victory Tuesday night, the AL now has an eight-game All-Star winning streak, its longest winning streak in the history of the Midsummer Classic.
Why? Look at the two starting lineups for the 76th All-Star Game. The American League's advantage fairly leaps off the page. With all due respect to the Senior Circuit, the AL lineup is more likely to produce runs at six of the nine offensive positions. If we accept the premise that the All-Star pitching is roughly even, with pitching brilliance on both sides of the argument, the AL should win. And it does.
It was a lineup without holes, without breathing spaces, without even momentary pauses, that the AL sent into play at Comerica Park.
"Any time you have possibly the league's MVP (Baltimore's Brian Roberts) batting ninth, you're a pretty good team," said Boston's Johnny Damon, the AL's starting center fielder and leadoff man.
There is no overstating how good this lineup was. It looked like it was drawn up, not by a manager, but by a higher power, an entity with even more sweeping powers than the Commissioner.
While the American League was loaded top to bottom, the National League starting lineup included two players whose 2005 numbers were decidedly sub-Star in quality. Those would be the two representatives of the New York Mets, Mike Piazza and Carlos Beltran.
We can argue about the reasons for this, but Piazza is not the offensive force that he once was, and Beltran has not yet lived up to the hype he received as the prince of the most recent free-agent class. And yet, on mere name recognition and sheer quantity of publicity, Piazza and Beltran become almost rote choices for many National League voters.
It was not particularly surprising when the American League starters piled up a 5-0 lead after just four innings. This was largely what was supposed to happen based on the relative run-producing capabilities of the two starting lineups.
All-Star MVP shortstop Miguel Tejada hit fifth for the American League team.
"I was happy to be hitting in the middle of this lineup," Tejada said. "Hitting after Manny (Ramirez), hitting in front of Vladimir Guerrero, you know you're supposed to score a lot of runs."
The National League's starting shortstop was David Eckstein, a worthy player on several different levels. But as Eckstein himself said when asked about a comparison of the two teams: "Put it this way -- I'm no Miguel Tejada.
"They've got big bats, and they can hit the ball out of the park and change the game. We've got some big bats too, but not consistently through the lineup as much as they do at each position, man-for-man. They did a really good job tonight."
"I've always said I'd like to pitch against a lineup like this for six innings and see what happens," said John Smoltz of the Atlanta Braves, who gave up a home run to Tejada. "I think it would be incredible. I don't think success would be waiting there for you. There's nobody to pitch around."
Exactly. These things have been largely cyclical in baseball, and in theory, the National League will go on an All-Star tear any year now. In the meantime, this collective American League edge means potential trouble for whatever team winds up being the National League's best.
This is the third straight year in which the All-Star game outcome determines which league holds home-field advantage in the World Series. In 2004, of course, the St. Louis Cardinals were clearly the game's best in the regular season, winning 105 games. This did them no particular good in the Series, which opened in Boston as a result of yet another AL All-Star victory.
It is true that the Cardinals came up against what turned out to be something like an irresistible force of history in the Red Sox. Cardinals manager Tony La Russa joked this week that if the Redbirds had home-field advantage, they might have lost in five games rather than getting swept in four. But the advantage is real enough, and nobody understands this better than the players involved.
"When it was going on last year, I wasn't at the [All-Star Game] and I really didn't think too much of it," Damon said of the home-field advantage. "But it helped us tremendously come World Series time, because we were able to play our game at Fenway Park and we were able to get up, 2-0. And then we went over to St. Louis, and we had the confidence and we got to relax some, and we got the job done. It definitely helped us."
At the end, Red Sox/American League manager Terry Francona refused to gloat on behalf of his league. Asked if the eight straight All-Star victories, along with Boston's sweep last October, represented AL domination, Francona responded: "You can go with that if you want to. I'm not going there."
There was no percentage in Francona boasting about the relative strength of his league. He said that he would rather have World Series home-field advantage settled by regular-season record. But Francona also said that his AL squad "knew what was at stake. you do what you're supposed to do, and you do it respectfully."
So, the American Leaguers gave it their best shot. And for the eighth straight time, not counting that tie in Milwaukee, their best was better than the NL's best. Nothing should be taken away from the work of the Junior Circuit stars. They are on an All-Star streak of historical proportions. And this series of impressive performances is nothing like a fluke.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.