NEW YORK – Settling home-field advantage in the World Series through the all-star game winner entered its second decade Tuesday night, and while the debate over that remains a polarizing one, it’s difficult to argue against how much better the Midsummer Classic has been since the change.
The 84th edition of the annual showcase offered up another entertaining affair before a Citi Field record crowd of 45,186, with Jose Bautista’s sacrifice fly in the fourth inning helping propel the American League to a 3-0 victory over the National League to end a three-game losing streak.
Fellow Toronto Blue Jays Brett Cecil and Steve Delabar also made their mark in the contest, each striking out the only batter they faced in the seventh inning to help preserve a 2-0 lead, as the American League captured the home-field edge in the Fall Classic for the first time since 2009, and eighth time in 11 years since the all-star game started to count.
“I think it’s working and it brings a little excitement and reward to winning the game,” said Bautista, whose fly ball to centre in the fourth ended a 17-inning scoring drought for the AL. “That became an issue at one point, and that’s serving as a solution to that as well. It keeps the game competitive and I think it’s a good way to dictate who gets the home-field advantage in the post-season.”
Whether the Blue Jays get to benefit from that is in doubt given the steep mountain they need to scale over the season's remaining 2½ months, but that's another matter for another day.
A crisp, well-pitched game that dropped the National League's all-time record in the Midsummer Classic to 43-39-2 found its defining moment in the bottom of the eighth inning, when fans roared as "Enter Sandman" came on and Mariano Rivera took the field alone in his final all-star game.
Players in both dugouts joined the crowd in standing and applauding, and the man widely considered the greatest closer of all-time tipped his cap to acknowledge a classy tribute from the right town, if wrong ballpark.
"Amazing, I can't describe it," Rivera said. "I wasn't expecting that. I wanted to come and do my job, and when I was crossing the field, I got to the mound, and then I heard that song in another stadium, that was great. And when I got to the mound, I see both teams on the dugout, it was amazing, it almost made me cry, too. I was close. It was amazing, a scene that I will never forget."
Rivera made quick work of Jean Segura, Allen Craig and Carlos Gomez, getting another standing ovation from boisterous fans and hugs from his teammates in the AL dugout as he walked off the field.
"I'm never going to forget that moment," Edwin Encarnacion said. "That was a very special moment for him, and I feel very happy for him."
Joe Nathan closed things out in the ninth, but Rivera earned game MVP honours. Before the game he and Torii Hunter addressed the AL clubhouse preaching a message of cherishing the moment, while later in the bullpen, Delabar initiated a chat with the 43-year-old, who had been sitting on his own.
"I asked him does he have any good bullpen games," Delabar said. "He said a long time ago he did something and didn't like the outcome of it, so he just stopped doing it altogether. He sat down by himself and nobody was talking to him, so I was like, got to break the ice here. That's when I asked him about stuff like that. … "Just talking to him, you see why the guys in front of him pitch the way they do. You want to get the game to him. Even tonight, it was like, we want to make this happen."
Cecil was also part of that conversation, saying afterwards, "You can learn from him in five minutes."
Despite an AL starting lineup boasting 185 home runs and an NL starting order with 136 long-balls, this game belonged to the pitchers, who allowed only 12 hits. The AL had nine of them, making it a long, long night for the NL's boppers.
Bautista ended an AL drought dating back to the fourth inning of the 2011 contest when Adrian Gonzalez homered off Cliff Lee in the fourth, driving a ball to centre field that Bryce Harper caught but allowed Miguel Cabrera to score easily.
"RBIs win games, it's something I take a lot of pride in, driving in runs and helping my team win," Bautista said. "I was happy I was able to contribute."
The Junior Circuit scratched out another run in fifth on J.J. Hardy's RBI fielder's choice, matching its total offensive output from the three previous all-star games. Jason Kipnis added an RBI double in the eighth to make it 3-0.
Encarnacion, the fourth Blue Jays all-star, had a longer night than his teammates, going 0-for-2 on a double play ball to short against Aroldis Chapman and grounder to short against Jason Grilli.
"Chapman threw 100 that inning and he doesn't know where he throws the ball," Encarnacion said. "He's hard man, but I enjoyed the moment."
So too did Cecil, who struck out Dominic Brown and described the experience as "awesome," and Delabar, who needed five pitches to get Buster Posey swinging.
"It was kind of a blur," said Delabar, who turns 30 on Wednesday. "I compare it to my debut, it kind of happened, then it was over with, and it's like, 'Did that just happen?'"
Bautista, a veteran at these things unlike his fellow Blue Jays, relished watching his teammates experience everything for the first time.
"I think we are a bunch of little kids inside when it comes to baseball," Bautista said. "We all love the game still and enjoy all these festivities, activities and the showcase that they have going on for us."
That certainly wasn't the case in the years leading up to and including 2002, when a 7-7 tie in 11 innings led commissioner Bud Selig to make the all-star game meaningful again.
Asked about it Tuesday, Selig had gathered members of the BBWAA cracking up when in explaining the tie game he said, "we were (expletive) out of pitchers."
"We had been talking for about a year and a half about changing it and I'll tell you why," he continued. "The problem with the all-star game was that players were leaving in the third inning. You couldn't get players. I remember the two conversations that I had with people about the all-star game.
"I called Ron Santo one day, who was sick at the time, and he brought it up. He said when we played, you wanted to be there. Henry Aaron, ironically the next day called and said why don't you do something to make guys stay. After all, Ted Williams did play in the all-star game, broke his elbow in the first inning, played 14 innings. Guys got hurt. Guys were really thrilled to play. It was a big thing. It had lost that. So we tried to figure out ways to change it. … "There are a lot of guys here whose teams have a great chance to go to the World Series. And it worked. I think of all the all-star games played, this one is far and away the best. So, the tie had nothing to do with it. I understand reasonable people can have different opinions - even if they're wrong. But it's alright. I look back on that as we were going to do that anyway."
For better or worse they did, and 11 years on, you can argue there's a lot more of the former than the latter.