St. LOUIS-There are many great things about Jonathan Papelbon, first and foremost that he is an outstanding relief pitcher. However, the Red Sox closer is also a lot of fun to watch and listen to. He pitches with emotion and speaks his mind in an era when seemingly every player presented a buttoned-down corporate image and appears to be reading off cue cards.
Papelbon is also a smart guy who does not answer reporters’ questions in clichés. In fact, he was proud to have invented a new cliché on Tuesday night in the aftermath of the American League’s annual victory in the All-Star Game, this time a 4-3 squeaker at Busch Stadium in front of a crowd that included President Barack Obama, the first sitting President to attend a Midsummer Classic since George H.W. Bush was at the 1992 game in San Diego. Quoth the closer: “Pitching and defense wins championships but defense wins All-Star Games. There’s a new cliché for you.”
Defense made a difference in the AL’s 12th consecutive victory over the National League, making the AL the Junior Loop in name only. It was slick fielding that garnered Rays left fielder Carl Crawford the Ted Williams Most Valuable Player Award, and enabled him to become the first position player to the MVP of an All-Star Game without driving in a run since Willie Mays in 1968.
“Very fitting,” said Rays manager Joe Maddon, the AL manager of his player walking away with the trophy. “We’re an organization that stresses defense and it is that concept of building a good defensive team that has played a large role in our ascension these last two seasons. Thus, it only seems right that one of our players would win the MVP because of a great defense play.”
Crawford went 1-for-3 but what everyone will remember is the outstanding catch he made in the bottom of the seventh inning after Papelbon came on with the score tied 3-3. Rockies right fielder Brad Hawpe led off the inning with a drive to left-center that appeared headed for the AL bullpen. However, Crawford went back to the fence and leaped, catching the ball above the fence to take away a home run and an NL lead.
“I thought it was going to be a routine fly ball when it came off the bat,” Crawford said. “But it kept carrying and I kept going back and next thing I knew I was at fence. I jumped for it and I banged my wrist off the top of the fence but I was able to hold onto the ball.” Crawford then smiled when asked if his wrist was hurting. “Those things don’t tend to hurt very long when you make the catch,” he said. “It felt good because I hadn’t made a catch like in a while.”
Papelbon retired the next two batters to close out the frame. The AL then scored the winning run off of Padres closer Heath Bell in the eighth; Tigers center fielder Curtis Granderson tripled, and then scored on a sacrifice fly by Orioles center fielder Adam Jones.
Crawford became the first Rays player to win the All-Star Game MVP, as the franchise had its first strong presence at the event since joining the major leagues as an expansion franchise in 1998. With Joe Maddon doing his part in the picking of several Rays (as skipper of last season’s pennant-winner, and accompanied by his coaches), they were represented by five players: first baseman Carlos Peña, third baseman Evan Longoria, shortstop Jason Bartlett, Crawford, and super-utilityman Ben Zobrist, although Longoria was scratched from the starting lineup earlier Tuesday because of an infected right ring finger.
Crawford, 27, had pretty much been the face of the franchise since breaking into the major leagues in 2002, at least until last season, when Longoria came along to win AL Rookie of the Year, and when Peña continued to establish himself as the team leader. Just how much Crawford is still synonymous with the Rays was apparent the other day, though, when Zobrist spoke about his first thoughts when he was traded to then-Devil Rays in 2006 while playing at Double-A in the Astros‘ organization. “I knew they had Carl Crawford, and that was really about it,” Zobrist reminisced.
Said Maddon, who replaced Lou Piniella as manager prior to the 2006 season, “Carl really kind of carried the weight of the world on his shoulders when I first came to Tampa Bay. He felt he had to do everything and it was difficult for such a young player to handle. I’ve seen him evolve a lot as a player and person in these last four years. He’s meant so much to this franchise, and it’s great to see him have a moment like this.”
The Rays rely on statistical analysis as much as any organization in baseball, and their number-crunchers work hand-in-hand with a strong scouting staff. As Maddon alluded to, the Rays came to appreciate that good defensive players were undervalued, and that a small-market club could build a contending team on a budget if they concentrated on putting together a lineup with good fielders. As a result, the Rays went from having the worst Defensive Efficiency in the major leagues in2007 to the best in 2008, and they also went from having the worst record in the majors at 66-96 to the best mark in the AL at 97-65.
This season, they rank 15th in Defensive Efficiency and are 48-41, third in the AL East and 6½ games behind the division-leading Red Sox. “Defense is so important to us,” Crawford said. “If you can’t play defense, you’re not going to play. That’s probably the biggest change I’ve seen in our team the last couple of years. We catch the ball now.”
For the game-winning blow, Granderson smoked his one-out triple off of Bell, a clout that bounced off the fence in left-center field and past Diamondbacks outfielder Justin Upton. National League manager Charlie Manuel of the Phillies opted to intentionally walk switch-hitting Indians catcher Victor Martinez to let the right-hander Bell face the right-handed Jones. However, Jones foiled the strategy by hitting a long fly-out to right that brought home Granderson.
Afterwards, Maddon gushed about Granderson’s hustle coming out of the batter’s box. “Curtis could have easily just settled for a double on that ball, but he was thinking triple all the way and he busted his butt to get to third,” Maddon said. “That was a big, big play in the game. If he decides just to settle for staying at second, we might not score in that inning and who knows what happens.”
Instead, Maddon used two more closers to finish out the game and save the win for Papelbon. The Twins‘ Joe Nathan tightroped his way through the eighth-the NL had its best chance to knot things up when Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez drew a two-out walk (ending a string of 18 consecutive batters retired by the AL), and then moved to third on a single by Dodgers second baseman Orlando Hudson. Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard pinch-hit, and Hudson stole second to put the winning run in scoring position. The crowd was roaring throughout the at-bat-Howard is a native St. Louisan-but Nathan got him to take a funky swing on a 2-2 pitch for a strikeout to preserve the 4-3 lead. Then the Yankees‘ Mariano Rivera pitched a one-two-three ninth for the save, a record fourth in All-Star Game competition, breaking a tie with Dennis Eckersley, and thus giving the AL home-field advantage for the World Series again.
“That was something to see those guys do their thing in the last two innings,” Papelbon said. “To see both of them come in behind me and save a win for me is really something special. I admire those guys so much. They are such special pitchers and they really define the closer’s role. It was pretty fun the way Joe Maddon lined us up in a row to finish the game. We kind of overpowered them.”
Neither starter was overpowering in their two innings. The AL’s Roy Halladay of the Blue Jays allowed three runs, while the NL’s Tim Lincecum of the Giants gave up two runs, both in the opening frame. The first run scored when Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols-who drew an even louder ovation than Obama or St. Louis legend Stan Musial during the pre-game ceremonies-misplayed a grounder by Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira for an error. Red Sox left fielder Jason Bay followed with an RBI single. The NL went ahead 3-2 with a three-run second inning; Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina had an RBI single, and the tying run scored on a throwing error by Rangers center fielder Josh Hamilton before Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder doubled home a run as a pinch-hitter. Twins catcher Joe Mauer‘s run-scoring double in the fifth off the Dodgers’ Chad Billingsley allowed the AL to knot the score at 3-3.
While Crawford provided the biggest play and Granderson the biggest hit, the most important batter/pitcher confrontation was Howard/Nathan in the eighth. Manuel liked his chances, especially knowing Howard has hit .381/.536/.746 in 84 career plate appearances in the newest incarnation of Busch Stadium. “They got the big hit when they needed to and they held us at the end,” Manuel said. “I like Howard up there, especially in that situation he was in. Nathan is a good pitcher, and he won that time. That’s kind of how it always seems to go for the National League in these games.”