Pitch­ers could help NL end its All-Star fu­til­ity

Austin American-Statesman - - SPORTS - By Dave Sheinin

ANA­HEIM, Calif. — The pa­rade of pitch­ers who will take the mound for the Na­tional League in tonight’s All-Star game will be­gin with the first pitcher in a decade to reach the all-star break with 15 wins. Next could be a guy with a 1.70 ERA, fol­lowed by a guy with seven com­plete games and a per­fect game in the first half, fol­lowed by the reign­ing Cy Young win­ner and league leader in strike­outs.

The Na­tional League has not won an All-Star game since 1996, but never in the years since has it owned a pitch­ing staff quite like this one. And if the NL is to end its mys­ti­fy­ing 13-year run of fu­til­ity — and earn home-field ad­van­tage in the World Se­ries for its cham­pion this fall — it likely will be won on the backs of its pitch­ers, be­gin­ning with Colorado’s Ubaldo Jimenez, and likely con­tin­u­ing, in some or­der, with Florida’s Josh John­son, Philadel­phia’s Roy Hal­la­day and San Fran­cisco’s Tim Lince­cum.

“Ob­vi­ously, I’m not real ex- cited about fac­ing them,’’ said New York Yan­kees third base­man Alex Ro­driguez, play­ing in his 14th All-Star game. “They def­i­nitely have some

Con­tin­ued from C1 tremen­dous pitch­ing. It’s the best pitch­ing I’ve seen them have in all my years.”

This has been the year of the pitcher in base­ball, with the games and the head­lines dom­i­nated by the men on the mound. Across both leagues, 18 pitch­ers with enough in­nings to qual­ify for the ERA ti­tle reached the break with a mark be­low 3.00 — com­pared to 11 all of last sea­son, and only one as re­cently as 2007. The ag­gre­gate NL ERA of 4.10 is the low­est since 1992, while the AL mark of 4.21 is the low­est since 1991.

The first half of the sea­son wit­nessed four no-hit­ters, in­clud­ing two per­fect games (and that’s not count­ing the one by Detroit’s Ar­mando Galar­raga that was wiped out by an in­fa­mous um­pire’s call).

It saw 46-year-old Jamie Moyer be­come the old­est pitcher in his­tory to throw a shutout, and it saw 21-year-old Stephen Stras­burg be­come the first pitcher in his­tory to strike out at least 14 bat­ters with­out a sin­gle walk in his ma­jor league de­but.

Above all, it has been the year of young aces, from Jimenez to John­son to Lince­cum in the Na­tional League, to Tampa Bay’s David Price, Bos­ton’s Jon Lester and New York’s Phil Hughes in the Amer­i­can League. All are rep­re­sented on the league’s re­spec­tive ros­ters tonight, with Price earn­ing the start­ing nod in the Amer­i­can League.

“It’s the time of the pitcher right now,’’ said AL man­ager Joe Gi­rardi of the Yan­kees. “You see so many young kids that are pitch­ing at such a high level.

“It seemed like 15 years ago, it was a time of young short­stops, and other times, it seems there’s an in­flux of great, young tal­ent in out­field­ers. But right now, the in­flux of young pitch­ing in base­ball is in­cred­i­ble.”

The out­come of the all-star game tends to re­flect its era. In 1998, the year Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa staged their sto­ried, steroids-fu­eled home run race, the midsummer clas­sic (at Den­ver’s Coors Field) was a 13-8 slugfest — won of course, by the Amer­i­can League. From 1998 to 2005 (the year be­fore base­ball be­gan pe­nal­iz­ing first-time steroids users), the all-star game saw an av­er­age of 11.5 runs per game. Since then, the teams have av­er­aged just seven runs per game.

“I think it’s just one of those crazy things in base­ball that hap­pens,” said Florida’s John­son, who this sea­son posted eight con­sec­u­tive starts in which he al­lowed one earned run or less. “You can’t ex­plain it. But it’s good to hear about the pitch­ing for a change. It’s been more about home runs for the last 10 years.”

Why has the game’s bal­ance of power shifted to pitch­ing? The most ob­vi­ous an­swer is the in­creas­ingly strin­gent drug-test­ing pol­icy.

How­ever, as many ob­servers quickly point out, pitch­ers used the same drugs as hit­ters did dur­ing the so-called Steroids Era. An­other ex­pla­na­tion is that young pitch­ers to­day get bet­ter train­ing as amateurs and as mi­nor lea­guers, and thus ar­rive in the ma­jors as nearly fin­ished prod­ucts.

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