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Archive for Tuesday, July 11, 2006

AL out to prove superiority

July 11, 2006

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— The numbers are so one-sided, it's startling.

The American League is 8-0-1 in the last nine All-Star games. AL teams also swept the past two World Series and won an overwhelming 61 percent of interleague games against the NL this season.

David Ortiz, Vladimir Guerrero and Ichiro Suzuki at the plate. Johan Santana, Roy Halladay and Mariano Rivera on the mound.

Indeed, there's nothing junior about the Junior Circuit.

"It's a far superior league right now," Alex Rodriguez said Monday. "In the American League, this is an All-Star team among All-Star teams."

Bold words from a big-name player.

And A-Rod will have another chance to prove his point tonight when he starts at third base for the AL in the 77th All-Star game at picturesque PNC Park.

The Phillies' Ryan Howard connects during the Home Run Derby. Howard won the event Monday in Pittsburgh.

The Phillies' Ryan Howard connects during the Home Run Derby. Howard won the event Monday in Pittsburgh.

Stationed just to his left (as usual) on media day was Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. Wearing a smart-looking suit, the New York captain was a little more, well, diplomatic about the AL-NL gulf.

"Alex said that? I didn't say that," offered a smiling Jeter, who often chooses his words carefully. "I think it's just one of those streaks, one of those stretches that you can't explain."

Maybe the American League truly has more talent. Maybe this sort of thing is simply cyclical and the lopsided numbers are a fluke. Whatever the case, it's an undeniable run of dominance that many National Leaguers want to stop.

Now.

"I'd have to say the American League is probably taking it a little more seriously right now," NL manager Phil Garner of the Houston Astros said. "We are tired of getting beat. To me, the task this year is, let's get that sense of pride back for the National League."

And home-field advantage in the World Series, too.

But one of Garner's own players, slugger Lance Berkman, still sounded pretty cavalier.

"We certainly want to win the game, but I don't think many guys are going to lose sleep over it if we don't," he said.

Of course, it wasn't always that way.

The National League used to own the AL, winning 11 straight All-Star games and 19 of 20 until Fred Lynn's grand slam off Atlee Hammaker at old Comiskey Park in Chicago helped snap the string in 1983.

The explanation back then was this: With more black and Latin stars such as Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente, the NL played a superior brand of ball - fast, energetic and determined.

Overall, the NL holds a 40-34-2 edge. So what's the reason for the American League's astounding success now?

"We've inherited a lot of their great players," Rodriguez said. "I think revenue sharing has helped American League teams. It's just the way it has worked out.

"There's probably 30 or 40 guys in the American League that could be in the All-Star game that are not," said Rodriguez, making his 10th trip. "This is the hardest All-Star team that I've ever had to make."

Trying to reverse the NL's fortunes, right-hander Brad Penny (10-2, 2.91 ERA) of the Los Angeles Dodgers will start against 41-year-old Detroit lefty Kenny Rogers (11-3, 3.85), scorned at last year's summer showcase after shoving a cameraman earlier in the season.

"It's something that I've always wanted to experience," Penny said. "I'm sure my nerves will be flowing."

Elected by fans to start at shortstop, Jose Reyes won't play for the NL because of a cut on his left pinky that required stitches. Atlanta's Edgar Renteria will take his place in the lineup, and St. Louis' David Eckstein was added to the roster.

Three of Reyes' New York Mets teammates, third baseman David Wright, center fielder Carlos Beltran and catcher Paul Lo Duca, will be in the lineup. St. Louis slugger Albert Pujols anchors the offense from the No. 3 spot.

"It'd be nice to win it so we could talk about something else rather than losing all the time," San Diego closer Trevor Hoffman said.

The NL already has one feather in its cap after Philadelphia's Ryan Howard won the Home Run Derby by beating Wright 5-4 in the finals Monday night.

The World Series champion Chicago White Sox have six players on the AL squad - plus outspoken manager Ozzie Guillen - but no starters. Jose Contreras, who pitched six innings Sunday, was pulled in favor of Minnesota rookie Francisco Liriano.

Guillen chose Toronto's Vernon Wells to start in center field, replacing Boston left fielder Manny Ramirez (sore knee). Guerrero will be in left and Suzuki in right.

"Even when I play Nintendo against my kids I want to beat 'em," said Guillen, who already told some AL All-Stars they might not see the field. "It's my job to win this game - and I will do anything."

With 23 first-time All-Stars, some of baseball's biggest names will be missing, including Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Ken Griffey Jr. and Randy Johnson.

But others are back, such as new Dodgers first baseman Nomar Garciaparra.

"It's great to see the young guys out here," Garciaparra said. "I think it just shows the way baseball evolves."

Beginning with the popular Home Run Derby on Monday night, perhaps the biggest star this week will be 5-year-old PNC Park and its breathtaking backdrop.

Sit high in the double-decked grandstand and the view is absolutely spectacular. Just beyond the center-field fence lies the Roberto Clemente bridge, painted a soft gold. It spans the peaceful Allegheny River, pointing toward downtown Pittsburgh and its handsome skyline.

Quite a sight to see, especially on a warm summer night.

Fans of the struggling Pirates, with the worst record in the majors at 30-60, will have a couple of All-Stars to cheer in third baseman Freddy Sanchez and outfielder Jason Bay, who will bat cleanup for the NL.

"We want to beat these guys," Philadelphia reliever Tom Gordon said. "Hopefully, this will be the year for us to do that and get the National League going."

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