- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 12, 2006

PITTSBURGH — There was a time when the National League dominated the American League, the All-Star Game mattered and Pittsburgh frequently found itself in the center of the baseball world.

It hasn’t been that way in quite a while. The NL hasn’t won an All-Star Game in 10 years. The midsummer classic has become more sideshow than spirited competition. And Pittsburgh has turned into a baseball wasteland, home to a once-proud Pirates franchise that hasn’t played host to a significant ballgame in ages.

The NL tried to turn back time last night at the 77th All-Star Game, but after eight brilliant innings from its unheralded pitching staff, the AL finally broke through and captured a 3-2 victory before a stunned crowd of 38,904 at PNC Park.

Down to its final out in the ninth, the AL rallied against veteran closer Trevor Hoffman with three straight hits, including Michael Young’s game-winning, two-run triple to right-center field.

Just like that, the biggest ballgame in this city since the 1994 All-Star Game turned into yet another loss for the home team, in this case an NL team, which hasn’t won this game since 1996.

No, the AL again will receive home-field advantage in the World Series, the fifth consecutive season it will play host to Game 1 of the Fall Classic.

“When we got to the ninth and I see these first two guys get out real quick, I turned to my coaches and said, ‘Why me?’ ” AL manager Ozzie Guillen said. “But when the two guys got on base, we had the best pure hitter in baseball at the plate.”

Few would have guessed that Young would even find himself in a position to win the game in this kind of fashion, at least not the way things went for most of the night.

The NL’s pitching staff held the AL’s prodigious bats in check, allowing one run on four hits through eight innings. And Hoffman, second on the all-time saves list, retired the first two batters he faced in the ninth to bring the crowd to its feet in anticipation of a 2-1 victory.

“Two quick outs. I couldn’t have scripted it any better,” NL manager Phil Garner said. “If you have a lead, you’re going to turn it over to Trevor Hoffman, who has been golden over the years.”

But he wasn’t this time. Paul Konerko started the rally with a two-out single to left, and Troy Glaus followed with a hit to left that would have scored Konerko had it not bounced over the left-field wall for a ground-rule double.

Then came Young, the Texas Rangers’ starting shortstop, with a chance to give his league the lead. He fell behind in the count 0-2 but then lined a fastball from Hoffman just past center fielder Carlos Beltran. Pinch-runner Jose Lopez and Glaus scored, and Young — the obvious choice for MVP — slid into third with a triple.

“I’m not going to lie,” Young said. “This is a pretty big highlight in my baseball career.”

Young’s highlight came at the end of a rare All-Star pitchers’ duel, one that featured a couple of surprise starting pitchers in Kenny Rogers and Brad Penny. Penny, the Dodgers’ right-hander, came out blazing, joining Pedro Martinez as the only pitchers in All-Star history to strike out the game’s first three batters [-] all on fastballs clocked in the upper 90s.

There was perhaps only one man in the AL’s lineup that could touch Penny’s heater: Vladimir Guerrero, the Angels wild-swinging outfielder. So when Penny uncorked a 98-mph fastball up around Guerrero’s eyes in the second, it was surprising to some in the crowd when the lanky slugger got on top of the pitch and sent it sailing into the right-field bleachers.

But that’s all that Penny, and the first six NL relievers who followed him, gave up through eight innings, paving the way for the NL’s lesser-known lineup to take the lead.

David Wright, the Mets’ young stud third baseman turned on a first-pitch curveball from Rogers in the second for a solo homer to left in his first career All-Star at-bat.

An inning later, the NL took a 2-1 lead thanks to some aggressive baserunning. Alfonso Soriano, the Washington Nationals’ lone All-Star representative, singled and stole second, then appeared to run through a stop sign trying to score on Beltran’s base hit up the middle. Center fielder Vernon Wells, though, fired a one-hop strike to the plate to nail Soriano and quash the rally temporarily.

Beltran, who took second on the throw to the plate, swiped third off pitcher Roy Halladay and catcher Ivan Rodriguez, then sprinted home without a throw after Halladay bounced a pitch in the dirt.

The NL had itself a one-run lead and an opportunity to regain its standing as the senior (and more successful) of the two circuits with a rare All-Star win.

“It doesn’t sting at all,” Garner said. “This was a well-played ballgame. You tip your hat to those guys who came back to win in the ninth inning. I’m not disappointed at all.”

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