Pitching will make this NL’s year

The Streak isn’t going to last forever.

In fact, it’s not going to survive Tuesday night.

The American League has not lost an All-Star Game since 1996, when National League luminaries Lance Johnson, Henry Rodriguez and Ricky Bottalico presided over a 6-0 victory in Philadelphia.

David Price, now the AL starting pitcher, was then a 10-year-old kid in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

The game was played at Veterans Stadium … which was demolished more than six years ago.

Kobe Bryant had just been selected in the NBA draft. … The Florida Panthers reached the Stanley Cup finals. … Bill Clinton was running for re-election. … You get the idea.

So, the NL is due. Actually, no. The NL was “due” in 2002. But all it could muster was a tie in Milwaukee. And it has lost seven in a row since.

No more.

It ends at The Big A. And I’m not going to hide behind one of the easy arguments: It’s cyclical. … The NL will get lucky one of these years. … Yadier Molina, starting despite a .223 average, obviously saved his hits for Tuesday.

By saying that an NL triumph is bound to happen, you imply the AL’s 12-0-1 run was something of a fluke. It wasn’t. The AL has been the superior league since the mid-1990s – and, frankly, it still is.

But the NL will win Tuesday because of the same exercise that has decided ballgames since the 19th century.

Pitching.

“I’m not going to call any shots,” Cardinals right-hander Adam Wainwright said. “I just know we have a team that’s good enough to do it. No billboard material coming from my mouth.”

But?

“It would be nice to throw the AL a whuppin’.”

Regular-season statistics – skewed by innate differences between the leagues – are useless in this discussion. We need to look at the individual players involved. And that’s where the NL has gained an edge.

The AL continues to be the more powerful league, thanks to the designated hitter rule and Yankee Effect. (“If you can’t beat ’em, try to spend like ’em.”) But now, at long last, the NL has big arms to handle the brawny lineup.

“The lineup the American League was throwing out there for a long time – it was ridiculous,” said Tim Hudson, making his first All-Star appearance with the Braves after winning (of course) twice with the A’s.

“Not that the American League lineup is any worse now. It’s still a good lineup. But the one thing the National League has now, maybe better than years past, is the pitching, defense and situational players.”

Colorado’s Ubaldo Jimenez, the NL starter, has the hardest average fastball in the majors: 96.3 mph, according to FanGraphs.com.

Florida’s Josh Johnson, who could be the first man out of the bullpen for NL manager Charlie Manuel, is third at 94.8.

Philadelphia’s Roy Halladay averages close to 93, even though he relies on movement as much as velocity. He has the pure stuff to dominate AL hitters – as evidenced by a 148-76 record and 3.43 ERA in 12 seasons with Toronto.

Halladay pitched a perfect game this year. Jimenez tossed a no-hitter. Johnson can’t be far behind, given what we’ve seen in the first half.

If Manuel entrusts the first five innings to those three men, there’s a very good chance that the AL run total would resemble binary computer code: 0 or 1.

“In games like this, guys that can overpower guys, it makes things a little bit easier,” Halladay said. “They have such great stuff that they aren’t relying on the command. Just the dominance of some of the guys here, hopefully, will give us that little boost.”

I would fully endorse a Jimenez-Johnson-Halladay showcase to start the game, even if it means other pitchers don’t appear. But Manuel, the ol’ hittin’ coach, has another appealing option: He could play the matchup game earlier than usual.

AL manager Joe Girardi revealed his lineup on Tuesday, and, well, it looks pretty scary. Robinson Cano, the Yankees’ top MVP candidate, is batting eighth.

But a closer look reveals the AL will have four left-handed hitters in a row, at least as long as the starters stay in the game: Joe Mauer, seventh; Cano, eighth; Carl Crawford, ninth; Ichiro Suzuki, first.

If Mauer or Cano lead off an inning, why not summon one of the team’s lefty relievers? Arthur Rhodes (10-for-49) and Hong-Chih Kuo (0-for-31) have stifled left-handed hitters all year.

Let’s not forget the NL has Tim Lincecum, the only active pitcher to win back-to-back Cy Young awards … and Wainwright, who ranks second in the majors in both wins and ERA … and Hudson, who is enjoying his finest season since at least 2003.

“A lot of swing-and-miss guys – a lot of power guys,” Hudson said.

It would be really great if the NL had Stephen Strasburg in its bullpen. But that’s a grievance for another day.

Fact is, Manuel has better bullpen artillery than most of his predecessors during The Thirteen Lost (or Tied) Years. On paper, this NL pitching staff is definitely better than the one Manuel managed in St. Louis last year.

Soon, we’ll find out if it’s the best since 1996 – which, if you’re scoring at home, was four FIFA World Cups ago.

“I was 13 years old,” recalled Pirates reliever Evan Meek, a first-time All-Star. “I was playing guitar in a garage band in Seattle.”

I hope he brought an amplifier to Anaheim. Tonight, he can jam in the winning clubhouse.

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