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July 14, 2010

All-Star Game

McCann is The Man

by John Perrotto

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ANAHEIM—Tim Hudson watched the inning unfold from the bullpen. As he did, one thought kept crossing his mind.

"I kept hoping we'd get Brian McCann up to the plate in a big spot," Hudson said. "I knew if we did, we'd win the game."

The veteran pitcher knows his Braves battery mate quite well. The right-hander has been with the Braves since 2005, the season in which McCann made his major-league debut. Therefore, Hudson was able to make like he had ESP when he told some of his National League teammates that McCann was about to hit a three-run double in the seventh inning that lifted the NL to a 3-1 victory over the American League in the 81st All-Star Game on Tuesday night at Angel Stadium.

"We had a lot of great players on this team, obviously," Hudson said. "Yet there was not one person on our bench that I would have wanted up at the plate in a big bases-loaded situation than Brian McCann. He's such a good player and such a good hitter, and you know he is going to give you a good, professional at-bat every time he steps into the batter's box. I was the least-surprised person in the ballpark when he hit that double. I fully expected him to do it. I would have been shocked if he didn't come through in that situation."

If Hudson was the least surprised person to see McCann deliver the hit that gave the NL its first victory since 1996, then winning pitcher Matt Capps was the second-least surprised person. The Nationals' closer has known McCann even longer than Hudson, as they both grew up in the Atlanta area, and played summer ball together in 2001 when they were teenagers.

"A lot of times, it seems like Brian gets overlooked when people talk about the best players in the league but he has been in the major league 5 ½ years and played in five All-Star Games, which pretty much speaks for itself," Capps said. "He's a great catcher and all you need to know about him is that when he came up in 2005, John Smoltz after the first time that Brian caught him, said that he wanted Brian behind the plate for every game he started. When a guy like John Smoltz says that, it means something. Then throw in that Brian swings a pretty mean bat, which he showed tonight, and you're talking about one of the top players in the league."

McCann, 26, is having another typically good season as he is hitting .267/.380/.447 with 10 home runs and a .299 TAv in 306 plate appearances. The left-handed hitter has belted at least 18 homers in each of his four full major-league seasons and has a .299 lifetime TAv.

Yet despite having plenty of regular-season success, McCann has struggled in the All-Star Game. He was 0-for-4 in Midsummer Classics, including flying out with two runners on to end the fifth inning as a pinch-hitter, until getting his game-winning hit off left-handed reliever Matt Thornton of the White Sox.

"If felt great," McCann said. "This is something you dream about. I mean, to be in a situation like that, just to be in a game like this, to share a locker room with these guys. As a kid this is what you dream about when you play baseball. It's a moment I'll never forget."

The AL took a 1-0 lead in the seventh inning, scoring their run on a sacrifice fly in the fifth by Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano off Dodgers left-handed reliever Hong-Chih Kuo. The NL then began its winning rally off Yankees right-hander Phil Hughes, who took the loss while appearing in his first All-Star Game in his native Orange County.

Reds third baseman Scott Rolen and Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday hit consecutive one-out singles to center field to put runners on the corners. AL manager Joe Girardi of the Yankees then called on Thornton to face left-handed-hitting Dodgers right fielder Andre Ethier but NL manager Charlie Manuel of the Phillies countered by pinch-hitting right-handed-hitting Diamondbacks center fielder Chirs Young. Young fouled out, but Cubs center fielder Marlon Byrd kept the inning alive by working a walk. Up stepped McCann and he doubled to right field to clear the bases and make it 3-1.

"Thornton has got one of the best left-handed fastballs in the game," said McCann, who was teammates with Thornton on the United States team in last year's World Baseball Classic. "I sat on the fastball and tried to get my hands going a little early. I got a pitch to handle, and luckily I didn't miss it."

Although the AL seemingly had the advantage in that situation with a left-handed reliever facing a left-handed hitter, Manuel didn’t have any options. McCann had already replaced starting catcher Yadier Molina of the Cardinals and the NL had no other backstops on the roster. However, Manuel was confident Thornton was a good matchup for McCann.

"I was sitting there on the bench and the guy threw him a low fastball," Manuel said. "I told (NL coaches) Bruce Bochy and Bud Black that I hope he keeps the ball down and hard, because this guy can light him up. He threw him a low fastball and he clocked him."

McCann became the second Braves player to be selected the Most Valuable Player of the All-Star Game, joining Fred McGriff who won the award in 1994. McCann also became the fifth catcher to be MVP along with Gary Carter (1981, 1984), Terry Steinbach (1988), Mike Piazza (1996), and Sandy Alomar Jr. (1997).

Cardinals right-hander Adam Wainwright, Giants closer Brian Wilson, and Dodgers closer Jonathan Broxton each pitched one scoreless inning to close out the victory. Broxton worked around a leadoff single by Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz in the ninth to earn the save. Capps retired the only batter he faced and got credit for the win, striking out Ortiz as a pinch-hitter with a runner on first to end the sixth inning. The NL allowed no earned run as an error by Kuo helped set up the AL run. Starter Ubaldo Jimenez of the Rockies and right-hander Josh Johnson of the Marlins pitched two scoreless innings each, Padres closer Heath Bell retired the only batter he faced, and Phillies right-hander Roy Halladay worked 2/3 of a scoreless inning.

The AL managed just six hits, their lowest total since also having six in the 1999 game, while the NL had just seven off AL starter David Price of the Rays and nine relievers. Price tossed two shutout innings to lead off the game. There were also no home runs hit for the second consecutive seasons, only the third time there have been none hit in back-to-back games. The other times were 1957-58 and 1962-63. The game's start in the twilight at 5:49 p.m. made hitting more difficult.

"Guys came back to the dugout and said it was tough to see, but at the same time when it was all said and done, it was the pitching," Manuel said. "Pitching was good on both sides and we got the big hit when we needed it."

And the NL gained home-field advantage in the World Series for the first time since it began being determined by the winning league in the All-Star Game in 2003. Thus, the Fall Classic will open at the home of the NL champion with Games One and Two, and it will also host Games Six and Seven if necessary.

"It's extremely important and whoever is in the World Series from the American League is going have to work to overcome the home-field advantage," said Girardi, whose Yankees beat the Phillies in six games in last year's Series.

The NL was happy to gain home-field advantage and even happier to end its 13-game All-Star winless streak. Capps hopes it puts an end to the talk that the AL is the superior league.

"People can say what they want but I know we play a good brand of baseball in the National League, too," Capps said. "Even though most of us weren't in the major leagues or even in pro ball when the streak started, it feels good to end it. You get tired of hearing that the American League plays better baseball. At least on this night, the National League was the better league."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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