AL extends ASG dominance in close win
Ichiro's inside-the-park home run a first in All-Star Game history
SAN FRANCISCO -- Given the distinct San Francisco flavor that emerged Tuesday night at AT&T Park, the 78th All-Star Game might as well have been stuffed between slices of sourdough bread and washed down with a pint of Anchor Steam beer.
From the paths batted balls took to the behavior the record crowd exhibited, the bayside ballpark's character was evident as the American League outlasted the National League, 5-4.
An inside-the-park home run by Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki and conventional homers by Tampa Bay's Carl Crawford and Cleveland's Victor Martinez helped extend the AL's unbeaten streak to 11 games -- 10 victories and one tie in 2002 -- and gave the Junior Circuit a 16-3-1 record in the last 20 All-Star Games.
The AL also gained home-field advantage for this year's World Series, although Minnesota center fielder Torii Hunter claimed that this was an afterthought.
"We're competitors," Hunter said. "You didn't have to put the World Series on the end of that. We're going to play hard anyway."
The NL shared that sentiment. Trailing, 5-2, the NL roused itself with two outs in the ninth inning as Washington's Dmitri Young singled off Baltimore second baseman Brian Roberts' glove. Then Alfonso Soriano of the Cubs homered off Seattle's J.J. Putz, generating momentum that soared as three walks loaded the bases. But Francisco Rodriguez of the Angels, who issued the last two of those walks, coaxed a harmless fly to right field from Philadelphia's Aaron Rowand to seal the AL's second one-run victory in a row and third in the last five years.
NL manager Tony La Russa of St. Louis declined to use his own slugger, the formidable Albert Pujols, as a pinch-hitter for Rowand, explaining that he needed to keep his former MVP on the bench in case the game went to extra innings.
"Maybe he was saving me for next year's All-Star Game," Pujols jokingly said.
Cincinnati right fielder Ken Griffey Jr. summarized the NL's grit by saying, "You look at the effort the guys put in the ninth inning. To battle back against two of the best stoppers in the league, that's pretty good."
While the respective leagues took turns asserting themselves, the ballpark and the record crowd that filled it remained a presence throughout.
Ichiro, who already has established himself as one of the most singular performers in the Major Leagues with his unique hitting style, recorded the first inside-the-park homer in All-Star history on a fifth-inning drive off the charming, quirky, asymmetrical right-field wall.
With the NL leading, 1-0, one out and Roberts aboard via a leadoff walk, Ichiro lashed the first pitch he saw from San Diego's Chris Young to the inner left edge of the wall inside the third of eight archways lining the right-field barrier. Instead of caroming to Griffey, the ball bounced crazily back toward right field, enabling the fleet Ichiro to round the bases with his first career inside-the-park homer as Roberts scored ahead of him.
"I thought it was going to go over the fence," said Ichiro, who went 3-for-3 and was a unanimous selection as the game's Ted Williams Most Valuable Player. "When it didn't, I was really bummed."
Griffey had no time to feel bummed. He said that he sensed Ichiro would round the bases "as soon as [the ball] kicked the other way."
Griffey knew what he was doing as he pursued the ball.
"If it hits off the brick, it's going to go toward center field," he said. "But it hit the corner of ... the top of the tan part [of the archway] and kicked dead left."
Once the inning ended, Griffey consulted San Francisco left fielder Barry Bonds, the Major Leagues' resident expert on AT&T Park, to determine how unusual Ichiro's homer was.
"Barry said he's never seen that happen," said Griffey, who drove in the NL's first two runs with a first-inning single and a sixth-inning sacrifice fly.
The rest of the night featured familiar sights and sounds.
Fans often feel close to the action within AT&T's intimate confines, which was demonstrated on Crawford's homer in the sixth. Though the NL didn't argue for a ground-rule double, a fan appeared to reach beyond the top of the right-field stands to catch Crawford's two-out drive off Milwaukee's Francisco Cordero.
Even Soriano's homer bore the ballpark's stamp by reflecting its challenges. He reached the seats last season with a similar opposite-field drive to right, a feat that few right-handed batters achieve with the 25-foot-high wall staring at them.
Despite the four homers, the most in an All-Star Game since 2003's five, this was a game controlled by pitching -- another of AT&T Park's tendencies. The NL kept the score close for most of the game by using one hurler per inning, while Boston's Josh Beckett worked two scoreless innings to lead the AL's pitching procession.
For good measure, the paid crowd of 43,965 showered two ovations upon Bonds, its favorite son, and another on Hall of Famer Willie Mays, the Giants legend who was honored in a pregame ceremony. Displaying long memories, fans also booed Rodriguez and John Lackey, members of the 2002 Angels who defeated San Francisco in the World Series, as well as Los Angeles Dodgers Russell Martin, Brad Penny and Takashi Saito, as if this were a regular-season game featuring the host Giants and their archrivals.
But it wasn't the regular season. It was the Midsummer Classic, which Ichiro turned into his midsummer night's dream.
Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.