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Little League tactics cause All-Star headaches

NEW YORK – Had baseball's All-Star game-turned-cricket match gone any longer, the American League's next pitcher would have come with an arsenal of fastball, curveball and changeup that share the same description.

"Junk," Evan Longoria said.

Longoria, you see, is a third baseman for the Tampa Bay Rays, and his team's ace, Scott Kazmir, had pitched the 15th inning two days after throwing 104 pitches. Kazmir wasn't supposed to pitch Tuesday, and he wouldn't have needed to had the All-Star game – the one that allegedly "counts," mind you – not devolved into something that resembles an exhibition, the world's best pitchers resigned to one-inning stints.

The gods were having a good laugh at it all, the AL manager, Boston's Terry Francona, running out the prize arm of his team's greatest threat, with elbows and shoulders and ligaments and tendons imperfect as they are. And just before it came to that, their bellies well filled with chuckles, they let Justin Morneau sprint, if you can call it that, and beat home a throw from Corey Hart on Michael Young's game-winning sacrifice fly in the AL's 4-3 victory in 15 innings.

Both sides, actually, were down to their final pitcher, Philadelphia's Brad Lidge representing the National League's last scion. Four innings earlier, television cameras zoomed in on commissioner Bud Selig, who tried to remedy the last All-Star game debacle, the 2002 tie, by awarding home-field advantage in the World Series to the league that wins. The look of impending doom Tuesday made it seem as though he knew his comeuppance was nigh.

Though spared the indignity of another tie, Selig had to suffer through the 4-hour, 50-minute Yankee Stadium special wondering, like everyone else, which position players Francona and NL manager Clint Hurdle would designate their pitchers and whether this would officially wreck the sham that says an All-Star game should mean something.

"I would've," Longoria said. "Somebody was going to have to go out there. If we kept going, Kaz wasn't going to pitch more. He probably didn't even want to pitch one (inning)."

It was either Longoria or game MVP J.D. Drew, who often jokes with Francona about wanting to pitch. Neither option was good, what with Drew's surgically repaired shoulder and Longoria's designation as the center of Tampa Bay's franchise for the next decade or so.

"In the last two hours, it wasn't a whole lot of fun," Francona said. "I was very nervous."

Of course, some of the pain was self-inflicted. Were managers not so loath to throw pitchers for longer than one-inning stints, the worry about running out of pitchers wouldn't be nearly the problem. After starting Cliff Lee for two innings – "I could've gone five or six," Lee said – Francona used four consecutive starters for one inning. One of them, Joe Saunders, threw 12 pitches. Another, Roy Halladay, finished with nine.

Francona pushed his bullpen with the same noodle whip. Joe Nathan and Francisco Rodriguez threw eight pitches apiece, and Jonathan Papelbon left with 11.

Eventually, Francona stretched Baltimore closer George Sherrill well past his means – tying a career high 2 1/3 innings – and found himself promising to quit cursing, quit chewing tobacco – do anything – to avoid a disaster.

In the 15th inning, a major-league official asked Francona about his plans. Francona shrugged and said he hoped he didn't need any.

Perhaps some proactivity would help the matter. Set a rule where one pitcher needs to go at least three innings and two more have to pitch at least two. All-Star games used to work that way before they turned into big-boy versions of Little League, where everyone's got to play.

Well, congratulations. Everyone did. And look what happened. Nate McLouth almost pitched.

"That's fine if you want to see 81 (mph)," the Pittsburgh center fielder said.

If the mandatory innings pitched seems a hard rule, try adopting the idea that ties – not the 11-inning variety, like in Milwaukee, but a legitimate stalemate similar to the one here – aren't the worst thing in the world.

"If you go 16 innings and no one comes up and wins an All-Star game, you can be pretty happy," Young said. "It's not like it could've been prevented."

Either is better than the easy solution, expanding the rosters, which would water down the meaning of All-Star more than it already is. A 15-inning game among the starters would've been more palatable than the clown dance with mostly B-listers that led up to the game's conclusion.

Granted, the ending provided the iconic image of the 79th All-Star game. No, it wasn't the tribute to Yankee Stadium nor its faithful's embrace of Mariano Rivera. And it wasn't the vicious booing Jonathan Papelbon got before and after he nearly blew the game, nor Dan Uggla booting three balls at second base, all of which almost cost the NL. Wasn't Aaron Cook escaping a bases-loaded, no-out jam or Russell Martin helping his league's cause with a textbook plate block on a McLouth throw to keep the game alive. Not even Selig's gloom made the cut.

The perfect picture was in the AL dugout, where Kevin Youkilis, the bald-headed, goateed first baseman, sipped on a Red Bull. He couldn't pull himself away from it. The game had stretched out so long he needed a pick-me-up.

He had seen some kind of junk – and Longoria hadn't even pitched.

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