ST LOUIS — When American League manager Joe Maddon turned in his All-Star roster early last week, I thought it looked lean, versatile and very much capable of extending the league's undefeated streak to 13 straight seasons over their National League pals.
Using a fast and speedy outfield in the later innings and a lockdown trio of closers, Maddon helped secure homefield advantage for the AL — and possibly even his own Rays — with a fundamental 4-3 victory that was played in a brisk two hours and 31 minutes at Busch Stadium.
To put it more simply, the AL out-National Leagued the National League for their seventh straight win since the infamous 2002 tie in Milwaukee.
Here are five reasons the American League is heading home with yet another win:
1. Carl Crawford's(notes) defense: The Tampa Bay outfielder was named the game's MVP after a seventh-inning play in which he went over the left field fence and caught a drive by Colorado's Brad Hawpe(notes) that would have broken a 3-3 tie if not for Crawford's thieving ways.
"Yeah, I was over the wall," Crawford said later after his third All-Star appearance. "It would've been a home run."
The play highlighted a fantastic defensive outfield alignment for the AL in the game's final innings with Crawford in left, Curtis Granderson(notes) in center field and Adam Jones(notes) in right. For people who believe that actual teams and not just a loose collection of superstars can be assembled for the Midsummer Classic, it was a beautiful thing to see.
2. Curtis Granderson's wheels: In a perfect world, the MVP trophy would have been shared by CC and Grandy, but that doesn't mean Granderson's effort went unnoticed. The first press conference question for Maddon was about Granderson's eighth-inning triple and subsequent game-winning run off a sacrifice fly from Adam Jones.
"That was huge for me that he even thought of it," Maddon said of Granderson's decision to stretch a left-field gapper from a double into a triple. "He thought of it and he did it and that was a big play ... From a baseball perspective, we try to teach that to our guys all the time and I thought that was fabulous."
3. Papelbon-Nathan-Rivera: On any given night, MLB managers get nightmares over having to face just one of the AL's dominant closers. But having to face Jonathan Papelbon(notes), Joe Nathan(notes) and Mariano Rivera(notes) in three straight innings? Mercy.
For those of you scoring at home, Papelbon earned the win with an uneventful seventh, Nathan struck out Ryan Howard(notes) to end the eighth and Rivera notched his record fourth All-Star save with a 1-2-3 inning in the ninth. Just reading about this terrible triumvirate should be enough to give most Stewies a serious case of night terrors.
4. Maddon's cold, cold heart: Twenty-five players got into the game for the American League, which means that eight guys were handed "I was named to the All-Star team and all I got was this lousy t-shirt" parting gifts. Though guys like Josh Beckett(notes) and Justin Verlander(notes) were unlikely to pitch after weekend use, Maddon still had to say no to guys like Tim Wakefield(notes), who made his first All-Star Game after 17 seasons and Carlos Pena(notes), who'll share a clubhouse with Maddon the rest of the season. Even Chone Figgins(notes), who flew to town as a last-minute replacement for third baseman Evan Longoria(notes), was denied a chance to honor Ozzie Smith with a back flip on his home turf.
But in the snubs came a valuable lesson for all future All-Star managers — if you're set on winning, don't be set on getting Little League playing time for everybody.
5. National League FAIL: The American League played well, but the NL didn't do itself any favors. The team's five hits were the least for any All-Star squad since the NL managed only three in 2001 and only two of its final 24 batters reached base. The team's defense wasn't any good either, particularly in the first inning when it couldn't buy a double play.
Wait 'til next year in Anaheim? For the NL squad, it'll have to do.