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ST. LOUIS -- It was the stuff that All-Star dreams are made of.
One of the game's top relievers faced one of its top sluggers with the game on the line in the eighth inning Tuesday night.
Joe Nathan was said pitcher, facing the Phillies' Ryan Howard with the American League leading the Midsummer Classic, 4-3, and two runners in scoring position. And Nathan, who shared the All-Star experience with teammates Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau for the second straight year, could barely believe it.
"When you get an opportunity like that," Nathan said, "it's kind of surreal."
But the Twins' participation in the AL's latest triumph was very real. Nathan pitched himself out of that precarious position with Howard, and Mauer smacked the RBI double that knotted the game up at 3 in the fifth inning.
When it was over, the AL had once again secured home-field advantage in the World Series. The Twins sure hope they get a chance to take advantage of that fact.
That advantage was in jeopardy when Nathan got in the two-out jam in the eighth. He had never faced Howard previously, and this was a heck of a time to get acquainted with one of the game's greatest hitters.
One thing Nathan, a four-time All-Star, knew for sure was that he wasn't going to pitch around Howard.
"It's a situation where I want to face guys like that," Nathan said. "It brings you to a different level. It brings your body to a level you can't normally get to. You respect the game, and you respect the fans and the matchups they want to see."
They saw an entertaining matchup in which Howard fiercely fouled off Nathan's first-pitch fastball, then worked the count to 2-2.
"I knew [catcher Victor Martinez] was going to call a breaking ball," Nathan said. "First, he went to a curveball, and I stepped off. I said, 'I can't throw a curveball right now. This is not the situation.' I think he knew that, so he called for a slider."
It was the right call. Nathan threw a nasty slider at Howard's heels, and the big man went down swinging for the final out of the inning.
"For me, it's about making sure I'm throwing it downhill," Nathan said. "I try to start it, as much as I can, on the inner part of the plate, to make sure they at least check-swing, if not full swing. I got it behind the plate, so it was in the air and looked like a strike long enough for him to commit to it."
Mauer had committed to a pull-swing mentality when he participated in Monday's State Farm Home Run Derby.
It was a decidedly different approach when he came to the plate with a runner on first, two out and Chad Billingsley on the mound in the fifth.
"I was trying to stay short," said Mauer, who was making his third All-Star appearance. "I had three at-bats against three pitchers, and they're the best in the game. So I tried to stay short. He threw me a cutter outside, and I was able to put a good swing on it."
Mauer's swing resulted in a double to the opposite field, and the AL evened up the score as Derek Jeter motored home.
"Like I told Morneau," Mauer said, "I tried to pull so many balls in the Home Run Derby, I had to get back to what I do."
Mauer's Derby performance resulted in him losing out in a tiebreaker after the first round. Still, he said he'll look back fondly on the experience.
"It was awesome," he said. "I was a little nervous, but it was fun. I just go and try to have fun with it. It might be the only one I do, but, if they ask me to do it again, it would be tough to turn down."
Morneau turned it down after winning the Derby last year. He said he wanted to be able to appreciate the All-Star festivities from a more laid-back perspective.
"It was just about wanting to come here and enjoy it," he said. "Trying to relax and take it all in and enjoy being here."
But Morneau did give his teammate some advice.
"He was saying to make sure you swing at the pitches you want," Mauer said. "He said, 'You don't have to worry about falling behind in the count.'"
The advice goes both ways, apparently. Last year, Mauer retreated from the hustle and bustle of New York City and the All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium to the quiet log cabin he built in rural Minnesota. He was headed there again after Tuesday's game.
Morneau visited Mauer's cabin and liked it so much that he had one built for himself and his wife, Krista, in another part of the state.
"I'm going to my cabin [after Tuesday's game]," Morneau said. "It got finished the first of July, so I'm looking forward to getting there."
Nathan, the elder statesman of this Twins trio that has now represented the organization at back-to-back Midsummer Classics, had quite different plans in mind. He and his family were planning to take an extended break in St. Louis before the second half begins in Texas. A trip to the local Six Flags amusement park appeared to be in order.
But before briefly breaking away from the grind of the game, Mauer, Morneau and Nathan got to soak in St. Louis' love and appreciation for all things baseball.
"This [All-Star city] definitely ranks as one of the better ones I've been to," Nathan said. "This has got to be the best baseball city I've been to. It's almost like a football Sunday when the Cardinals are in town. It's a huge party, and I knew coming in it was going to be a great event."
That at-bat against Howard was part of what made this All-Star Game great.
"That was pretty impressive," Mauer said
But Mauer teased his teammate, nonetheless.
Said Mauer: "I told [Nathan], 'Couldn't you have done it with less pitches?'"