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NEW YORK-The drumbeat in favor of an unconventional idea began last week in this city’s tabloids and only got louder as the All-Star festivities heated up over the weekend. Yet, Red Sox manager Terry Francona only heard second-hand about the clamoring that he, in his role as American League skipper in tonight’s All-Star Game, give in to sentimentality and name Yankees closer Mariano Rivera as his starting pitcher. The reasoning by those in the nation’s largest city was that giving Rivera the starting role in an All-Game Star game being played during the final season of Yankee Stadium would be a wonderful tribute to one of the game’s greatest relief pitchers.

Certainly no one can question Rivera’s credentials, even those with the mindset that closing games is the most vastly overrated role in the majors. It’s argued that dozens of other pitchers can be found throughout the big leagues (and Triple-A) could handle the job and receive the accompanying glory if given the opportunity. Regardless of that, Rivera has 466 saves in his 14-year career, all spent with the Yankees, putting him third on the all-time list behind the PadresTrevor Hoffman, who has 541, and Lee Smith, who amassed 478. That should earn Rivera his place in both Monument Park and the Hall of Fame, especially when you factor in his 10 All-Star Game berths, three AL saves titles, and a 0.77 earned run average over 117 innings in 76 post-season games.

Rivera is having a fine 2008 with 23 saves and a 3.405 WXRL that ranks third in the AL behind only the TwinsJoe Nathan (4.361) and the Angels‘ Francisco Rodriguez (3.696). “Mariano is still the best closer in the game, and I don’t think anyone can dispute that,” Nathan said. “He’s the guy that all of us closers want to be.”

When it came time to reveal the starting lineups for tonight’s game during a Monday morning press conference, Francona seemingly upset everyone in New York’s five boroughs when he instead chose Indians left-hander Cliff Lee to pitch opposite the National League’s Ben Sheets of the Brewers. Francona explained his rationale for opting against the gimmicky idea of giving Rivera his first start since September 5, 1995 (when he lost to the Mariners at Yankee Stadium in his rookie season): Rivera has made 812 consecutive relief appearances since. “The thing we’ve talked about in preparing for the game is treating the game with respect, knowing where we’re playing and who’s playing it,” Francona said. “That being said, Mariano is one of the greatest relief pitchers of all time, but he’s not a starter. I thought it would be unfair to the starting pitchers and unfair to (Lee) to start Mariano, and you’re also putting a guy at risk if you ask him to do a job he hasn’t done all season. We will treat every player with respect, certainly understanding there are Yankees in the game, and we’ll treat the game correctly.”

Lee has been the best starting pitcher in the AL this season by any measure you choose, whether it’s his major league-best 4.6 SNLVAR and 9.8 expected wins or his 12-2 record and 2.31 ERA in 18 starts. He has compiled those statistics despite playing for an Indians team that has gone from within one game of the World Series last October (before losing in seven games to the Red Sox in the ALCS) to last place in the AL Central this season.

Making Lee’s story even more compelling is that he’s a guy whose career seemed to be falling apart last summer, after compiling 46 wins in a three-year span from 2005-07. Last year, he was 5-8 with a 6.29 ERA and 0.2 SNLVAR in 20 games, 16 of them starts, was banished to Triple-A Buffalo for more than two months, and then left off the Indians’ post-season roster. Furthermore, Indians general manager Mark Shapiro shopped Lee throughout the offseason in an unsuccessful attempt to land a corner outfield bat in a trade. “There are a lot of pitchers this year having outstanding seasons, but none measured up to Cliff’s,” Francona said. “From his very first start of the year, he’s been the most outstanding starting pitcher in the American League. We’re excited and honored to announce him as our starting pitcher.”

Lee found out about his assignment when he checked into the hotel Sunday night on Manhattan’s East Side where the All-Star players and staff are staying. He admitted he was quite surprised, even if he seemed the most logical choice to everyone beyond those stumping for Rivera. “There was a note from Terry with all the paperwork they handed me that said I was starting,” Lee said. “I’m completely baffled and honored by it. I’m kind of awe-struck by the whole thing. Honestly, it’s just an honor to be here. To get the start is just icing on the cake. Sometimes going through failure makes you a better player in the long run. I think that’s the case with me. Last year gave me a little motivation to go into the offseason and work a little harder to make sure I did everything I could to go out and give myself a chance to compete this season and prove I could have success like I did in the past. Fortunately, it’s kind of worked out this year.”

While Lee will start, the question now is who will end the game for the AL if it has a lead going into the bottom of the ninth, not an reasonable scenario considering the AL is currently on a 10-game All-Star Game winning streak. Francona, though, was playfully coy about his plans for a closer. In addition to Rivera, he has Nathan, Rodriguez, Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon and Orioles closer George Sherrill on his roster. “Clint Hurdle doesn’t need any extra help,” Francona said as to why he wouldn’t reveal his strategy. “Anyway, it will give everyone something to write about (tonight).”

Clint Hurdle, manager of the Rockies and the NL squad, laughed when told of Francona’s statement. “I’m going to stick my neck out there and say we’re going to prepare for Rivera, maybe watch a little video of him,” Hurdle said. Nathan, a New Yorker who grew up on Long Island, also has a pretty good idea who Francona will call on if there is a save situation. “It’s going to be Mariano, that’s an automatic,” Nathan said. “It’s his ballpark and his city. Who else is he going to use? Who else would anyone use?”

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