Pitching gives the edge to NL

July 11, 2011

The National League dominated the All-Star Game throughout the 1970s. More recently, the American League went unbeaten for 13 years — until the NL’s triumph in Anaheim last July.

So now the Senior Circuit is nine innings away from something it hasn’t had since 1996 — an All-Star winning streak.

Is the NL about to start a decade of dominance? Well, I love making bold predictions — I was a charter member of the Giants’ bandwagon last year — but I’m not willing to go that far yet. I am, however, prepared to tell you that the NL will win Tuesday’s All-Star Game. My reasoning runs entirely counter to conventional wisdom and is certain to shock you:

It has the better pitching staff.

This may come as a surprise to astute readers who recall the recent column in which I declared that the AL has usurped the title of “Best Pitching League” from its older brother. I still believe that — in general. But the All-Star Game is different. It is contested between two teams on one night in July, separate from the more telling 162-game march.

And in this instance, thanks to luck as much as anything else, the NL pitchers are better.

I didn’t formulate that opinion right after the rosters were announced last week. Rather, it has more to do with the attrition that has taken place since. Thanks to the (perfectly sensible) rule that prohibits pitchers who started on Sunday from participating in Tuesday’s game, AL manager Ron Washington won’t have the services of Justin Verlander, James Shields, CC Sabathia and Felix Hernandez.

Oh, by the way: David Price, last year’s AL starter, is another scratch. He has turf toe on his left foot.

Basically, Washington will be without what would be a dream five-man rotation in your AL-only fantasy baseball league.

Don’t get me wrong: It’s not as if Washington has been forced to borrow a couple JV arms from nearby Scottsdale Chaparral High School. The AL starter, Jered Weaver, happens to be the major league ERA leader (1.86). And there is three-time All-Star Josh Beckett, to go along with intriguing first-time picks Gio Gonzalez, Alexi Ogando and Michael Pineda.

But we’re not going to see many of the arms most responsible for the dominant AL pitching throughout the regular season.

Imagine how the AL hitters must feel. All season long, they have to deal with Verlander, Price and Hernandez. Finally, they get to be on the same side — and yet they still can’t experience the joy of watching the opposition flail away.

“Kind of ironic, isn’t it?” Minnesota outfielder Michael Cuddyer said with a rueful grin.

Of course, this is welcome news in Philadelphia, Atlanta, Milwaukee, St. Louis, San Francisco and all other National League outposts with a vested interest in securing home-field advantage in the World Series.

The NL has the more proven staff, with ace starter Roy Halladay backed by the likes of Cliff Lee, Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum and Jair Jurrjens. NL manager Bruce Bochy lost Matt Cain and Cole Hamels after each pitched on Sunday, but he emerged unscathed in comparison to Washington. Besides, the overall depth of the NL staff will mitigate the effect.

If the NL wins, the other general managers around the league should (just this once) send a thank you note to Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. Without him, Halladay and Lee might still be pitching for the American League, as they did as recently as 2009 and 2010, respectively.

“There’s been a lot of key guys move from the American League to the National League — Halladay, (Zack) Greinke, myself,” Lee said. “It does kind of flip it a little bit. But there’s still some great pitching in the American League. Pitching, in general, has been more dominant over the past few years. Guys are throwing harder (with) better stuff, and it’s hard to hit.”

Also of note: While the AL bullpen is skewing younger — Mariano Rivera is out with a sore arm — Bochy can go with the fearless (and appropriately eccentric) eighth/ninth combo of Heath Bell and Brian Wilson.

Bochy, as we witnessed in last year’s World Series, is a managerial maharishi when it comes to deploying a dominant pitching staff to the greatest possible effect. All-Star Games are handled differently, of course, but Bochy’s feel for match-ups should remain keen. And now he has a bullpen that features Kershaw or Lee as the second left-hander.

On Monday morning, honorary AL president Jackie Autry kidded her NL counterpart Bill Giles about last year’s result, saying, “Every once in a while, a blind pig finds an acorn.” The remark drew laughter in the room, but it may not be funny for the AL champion that opens this year’s World Series on the road. At least for one day, this blind pig has the better pitching staff.