Saturday, September 23, 2017

With All-Star Game result no longer tied to World Series, there's a new incentive to win

ST. LOUIS — Major League Baseball divulged its choices Sunday, and though it will be billed as the 88th All-Star Game between the National League and American League, it will look more like an exhibition between the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers against the New York Yankees, Houston Astros and Cleveland Indians.

Welcome to the baseball world of several haves — and many have-nots.

There are five NL teams with winning records and six teams in both leagues playing above .550, with three from the same division — the NL West. The Astros and Nationals are the only teams with larger than a three-game division lead, with the Astros and Dodgers on pace to finish with more than 100 victories this year.

No wonder it was baseball’s elite furnishing the bulk of the All-Star teams, with the Yankees, Indians, Astros and Nationals each supplying five players, led by Washington right fielder Bryce Harper, who led all vote-getters and earned his fifth All-Star selection. (“I’m humbled by it,” Harper said.). The Nationals and Yankees could wind up with six apiece, if Washington shortstop Anthony Rendon and New York shortstop Didi Gregorius are selected in the online final vote.

It’s the first time in Nationals history that they had three players voted to the starting lineup, with first baseman Ryan Zimmerman and second baseman Daniel Murphy joining Harper. Starters Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg also were selected.

“I definitely think it’s a team honor,” Murphy said. “We’ve played really well this year, and to have this many representatives, I think, is a reflection on how good our ballclub is.”

Nationals manager Dusty Baker, who called his players into the office to inform them of the news, was particularly excited for Zimmerman, who was last an All-Star in 2009.

“Sports are funny, man,” Zimmerman said. “To go through the injuries, a different position and a completely different spot in life, it’s fun to think what’s happened since then. It’s a crazy path to get back.

“Any time individual awards or honors can be experienced with teammates makes it more special.”

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Considering all but a handful of All-Stars are on non-contenders, it’s a shame this is the year the All-Star Game won’t count.

The game still technically counts, of course, but only for pride. And yes, money. This is the first time in 15 years that the winning All-Star team won’t be awarded home-field advantage in the World Series. Home-field advantage instead will go to the team that advances to the World Series with the best record, no matter how chaotic it could be for the lives of travel agents.

Really, this is the way it should have been all along, but Major League Baseball kept insisting it couldn’t wait until the championship series concluded, needing advance time for travel accommodations. Now, there might be less than 48 hours’ notice before anyone knows where the World Series starts. But if it means spending a few extra bucks for last-minute plane reservations and staying at the Holiday Inn Express instead of the Four Seasons, so be it.

While many complained about the All-Star Game’s outcome being tied to home-field advantage — which came in the aftermath of the tie in the 2002 All-Star Game in Milwaukee — the truth is that it worked. The games were much more competitive. Players weren’t flying back home in the middle of the game. All-Star Game managers and players on contenders certainly felt that something was at stake.

It turned out that the home-field advantage proved to be of little significance. Just three World Series since 2003 went seven games, and the visiting team won in two of those years. It actually backfired for the Indians last year, considering that the Chicago Cubs were able to use Kyle Schwarber as the DH in Cleveland, winning three of four games on the road, including Game 7.

Still, there was at least some incentive to win the All-Star Game. Now, the incentive is cash.

The winners will receive $20,000. The losers get nothing.

The All-Star Game is back to being a showcase event.

Whether or not George Springer and Jose Altuve (left) can help lead the AL to victory in the All-Star Game will be irrelevant come October. (Photo: Jim Cowsert, USA TODAY Sports)

“Really, this is the way it should be,” said St. Louis Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt, whose team won Game 7 of the 2011 World Series with home-field advantage. “You want more players who can appear in the game.”

There are only 32 All-Star players per league instead of 34 this year, and while there still will be a fan vote selecting one last spot in each league, the managers have been stripped of their voting privileges. Instead, the Commissioner’s office selected seven players from the NL (four pitchers) and five players from the AL (four pitchers).

This year’s rendition of the game will look dramatically different than a year ago without the influx of Cubs players. The Cubs, the darlings of the 2016 season, made history a year ago by having seven All-Stars — including their entire infield — voted to the starting team. They paid the price with their mediocrity (41-41) this year.

Their lone All-Star is closer Wade Davis, who wasn’t even on last year’s World Series title team, with only reigning NL MVP Kris Bryant on the final vote ballot.

The marquee decision of the show could be determining the starting pitcher, and it could be a doozy for NL manager Joe Maddon of the Cubs. Does Maddon select three-time Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers or two-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer of the Nats? Scherzer certainly is having the better year, 9-5 with a league-leading 2.06 ERA and 151 strikeouts. He is yielding a mind-boggling .167 batting average, which would be the lowest by any pitcher to ever qualify for the ERA title.

Yet, Kershaw is 12-2 with a 2.32 ERA, and his 135 strikeouts are second only to Scherzer. Strangely, he has never been selected to start an All-Star Game. Maddon, though, might not have to make the choice if Kershaw makes his regularly scheduled start two days before the All-Star Game.

There’s no question that Chris Sale of the Boston Red Sox deserves to be the AL starter. Sale, 11-3, 2.61 ERA, might not only win the Cy Young this year, but possibly the MVP award with his dominance. He leads the league with 166 strikeouts, and could become the first pitcher since Curt Schilling in 2002 to strike out at least 175 batters in the first half.

And, though the Red Sox will likely finish the first half atop the AL East, no matter how he performs at the All-Star Game, Sale will have no control over where the World Series will be staged.

Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter @BNightengale.

PHOTOS: MLB All-Star Game starters

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