NL’s McCann jumps into hero role

Almost as improbable as a 13-year winless streak is the idea of Brian McCann as the National League’s savior.

He’s a good player, sure. He’s just not the transcendent superstar, the household name you’ve been conditioned to believe will resolve a prime-time telecast. He’s not Albert Pujols. He’s not Alex Rodriguez (more on that later). He’s not Andre Ethier. He’s not chiseled or handsome. He’ll never make the cut as a celebrity endorser. Thickly-built and balding, the Atlanta Braves catcher looks like the guy at the end of the bar.

But he can hit a baseball well enough to merit selection as his league’s backup backstop.

“Absolutely kills us,” said Charlie Manuel, who manages the Phillies when he’s not managing the NL.

This has been called the Year of the Pitcher, and unfortunately, the All-Star Game offered little respite. At the end of six, fans had yet to see an earned run. The score was 1-0, American League, thanks to a throwing error by Dodgers reliever Hong-Chih Kuo. Just when you thought the World Cup was over, a soccer game breaks out. By the seventh inning, I was ready for Bud Selig to return the game to its roots and outlaw all drug testing.

But then Scott Rolen went from first to third on a Matt Holliday’s single, and Marlon Byrd walked to load the bases. Next, McCann came to the plate. His first at bat — an inning-ending fly ball with men on first and third — wasn’t the source of much encouragement. Then again, neither were his previous All-Star Game appearances. He was 0-for-4 in five games and seemed to be just the guy to keep the NL streak alive. Besides, if he couldn’t hit righty Justin Verlander, what could he do against Matt Thornton, the Tigers’ hard-throwing lefty. McCann came into the game hitting .233 against lefties.

Manuel thought differently, of course: “I was sitting there on the bench and the guy” — Thornton — “threw him a low fastball.”

A mere 97 miles an hour. McCann was lucky to foul it into the stands. “Just put my head down and prayed that it got into the seats,” he said.

Still, to hear Manuel, McCann had Thornton right where he wanted: “I said I hope keeps the ball down and hard, because this guy” — McCann — “can light him up.”

Thornton’s next pitch came in at 98 mph. “Low fastball,” said Manuel, “and he clocked it.”

“Got lucky,” said the pathologically modest McCann, whose double to right scored three runs. “Got a pitch that I could handle.”

So much for the Year of the Pitcher. So much for the streak.

Later, in the clubhouse, he would speak of playing baseball since the age of four, how he had acquired trust in his hands and his eyes. He also let it be known that the All-Star Game had become personal. The streak began just before McCann had enrolled at Duluth High School in Georgia.

“This is my fifth one,” he said, “and every time, everyone of us have to answer the questions. You keep losing. You keep losing. You want to put an end to that.”

“You come here to compete and to win,” said Rolen. “If you come here to go through the motions, well then maybe you’re not an All-Star. This one counts.”

After 13 years, the National League felt sufficiently insulted. Apparently, Manuel issued a pretty good pre-game pep talk. After all, he’s had a pretty big stake in the outcome of this game. His Phillies have been to the World Series the last two years. In ’08, they won three-straight at home. In ’09, they dropped two of three at Yankee Stadium. “Home field advantage,” he said. “It’s definitely a big deal.”

No doubt George Steinbrenner would agree. You couldn’t help but think of him Tuesday night. In the bottom of the ninth, Joe Girardi sent two Red Sox to the plate. David Ortiz singled, only to be thrown out chugging to second on a shallow fly ball that fell. Adrian Beltre struck out on three pitches.

Meanwhile, Alex Rodriguez — whose dealings with the House of Steinbrenner will earn him in excess of $275 million — never entered the game.

Later, the Yankees skipper was asked if there were any reason for holding out A-Rod. “No,” he said. “We were talking about pinch-running him in that situation.”

Pinch-running? “If the situation arose, extra innings, he would probably be my DH.”

Maybe it was a good thing — at least for Girardi — that the principal owner wasn’t in attendance. He might have been fired before leaving the state.

It didn’t take much to conjure an image of Steinbrenner, all bile and bluster. Where was A-Rod? What am I paying these guys for? And who the hell is this McCann kid?

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