Wednesday July 14th, 2010

ANAHEIM -- He'd have you believe otherwise, but Scott Rolen is really not that fast.

The Reds' third baseman is 35. He hasn't stolen more than seven bases in as many years. He has a long history of back problems.

But with the National League trailing 1-0 in the seventh inning, the game having been every bit the pitchers' duel an All-Star Game in 2010's Year of the Pitcher ought to be, Rolen chugged hard through second and went from first to third on Matt Holliday's shallow single to centerfield.

By removing the force play at every base, Rolen facilitated American League lefthanded reliever Matt Thornton's walk of righthanded hitting Marlon Byrd. Thorton wanted to face lefthanded Brian McCann. The Braves catcher, however, doubled to score three runs, and the NL would go on to win 3-1, securing homefield advantage in the World Series with its first All-Star Game victory since 1996.

"I'm just so goddamn fast," Rolen joked in the victorious visiting clubhouse after the game, before explaining, "That's the way I was taught the game -- going first to third with one out is important."

Asked if he had any hesitation rounding second, given his finicky back and that the game -- in the reporter's words -- was "an exhibition," Rolen smirked and recited a variation of Major League Baseball's catchphrase for the All-Star Game. "This one counts," he said.

And then to answer the question, Rolen noted that he had not, in fact, been mindful of taking it easy. "I was competing," he said.

True league pride may be diluted or absent in this era of interleague play and free agency, but if nothing else, the spoils of homefield advantage in the World Series have restored the competition to the All-Star Game. The players may not press an uncertain health issue, as they might in a playoff game, but at the very least they treat the Midsummer Classic to be at least as important as a regular-season game. That means, like Rolen, they're not thinking -- they're just competing. His was an instinctive play, and that underscored the game's value.

Likewise, in the AL clubhouse, there were no excuses or belittling of the stakes as solace for the defeat.

"We wanted to win," said Blue Jays catcher John Buck, who was 1-for-2 with a double. "Everybody's a competitor."

NL manager Charlie Manuel's final clubhouse reminder before the players left for the dugout was to say, "If we win, someone in here is going to get that homefield advantage."

Rolen, incidentally, is not David Ortiz slow -- that is to say, getting forced at second on a ball hit in front of an outfielder playing deep, no-doubles defense, as the Red Sox's designated hitter managed to accomplish in the ninth inning -- but on this night he also wasn't Heath Bell fast.

The closer for the NL West-leading Padres drew cheers from the Angel Stadium for his mad dash from the bullpen to the mound, a routine of his that lives in San Diegan obscurity most of the year. But this time he entered to save Dodgers reliever Hong-Chih Kuo, who had yielded a run in the fifth and departed with two outs and a runner on second.

And Bell had extra incentive, competing in front of his ailing father, Jim Bell, a former Marine stricken with cancer. Just before the game, Jim Bell gave his son his old dogtags, which the closer wore under his uniform.

"That's probably why I ran so fast," Bell said. "I usually am pretty quick, but this time I flew."

Bell induced a flyout from Torii Hunter to escape what passed for a jam in the pitcher-dominated affair. The game had just three extra-base hits (all doubles) and five walks. Early on the game moved with such a rapid pace that the middle of the fifth was reached -- the game's midpoint -- in less than an hour.

No star shone in the nighttime sky until the ninth inning, given the West Coast location and a television start time preferential to the East Coast, and the brightest All-Stars on the field were the pitchers. For most of the game the NL seemed star-crossed, determined to end its 14-year unbeaten streak, but trailing 1-0 into the seventh by way of an unearned run, on a throwing error by Kuo.

"The pitching by both sides was excellent," AL manager Joe Girardi said. "It came down to one pitch in the game."

That one pitch, of course, was McCann's bases-clearing double down the right-field line. For McCann it was his first All-Star hit in his fifth appearance, and it came in his second plate appearance, the first time he had lasted in a game long enough to go through the order a full time. And it was good enough to earn him the game's MVP award, though he disappointedly noted afterwards that his wife, Ashley, had missed the game for the first time because she was expecting their first child and unable to travel.

After the game sweat beaded on McCann's forehead and poured down his face, the epitome of exhaustion and elation about his moment as the hero and his role in helping the NL win, particularly given that his Braves have the best record in the NL and thus would be among the favorites to actually enjoy the newly-won homefield advantage.

"We've had to answer all your questions for a while now about the streak," McCann said. "It was on all our minds. We wanted this game."

Meanwhile, the AL pennant winner will have to travel for World Series Game 1, the first such inconvenience the AL has endured since 2001, before the All-Star Game determined the Fall Classic's location.

The owners of baseball's best record, the Yankees, were as much to blame as anyone, as Phil Hughes took the loss and manager Joe Girardi made some costly decisions. He used a manager's pick to name his third baseman, Alex Rodriguez, to the All-Star team but never used him in the game, and Girardi didn't pinch run for Ortiz in the ninth.

And so it was that many of the game's key actors belonged to division-leading clubs, for whom the stakes were a bit higher than, say, the Pirates' Evan Meek or the Orioles' Ty Wigginton, whose clubs' only realistic goal is of staving off elimination as long as possible. For everyone else, this game mattered, and their play proved it.

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