KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Much has changed since the All-Stars last pulled into town in 1973. Then again, it seems like much of baseball has been turned upside down since the final out of the crazy World Series last October.
Five no-hitters, including two perfect games. A four-home run night by Josh Hamilton. Pittsburgh and Washington together in first place for the first time. Philadelphia in the cellar. Cliff Lee winless until July 4th.
“Seeing what’s going on here, it’s fun to be a part of it,” A.J. Burnett said after improving to 10-2 as the Pirates routed the San Francisco Giants and Tim Lincecum 13-2 Sunday.
If the season ended now, the first year of expanded playoffs would open with Baltimore at the Los Angeles Angels for the one-game AL wild card, with the winner hosting the Yankees in the division series opener. The Chicago White Sox would host two-time AL champ Texas in the other best-of-5 series — which for one year only starts at the team with the lesser regular season record.
In the NL, Cincinnati would host Atlanta for the wild card, with the winner hosting the Nationals — a franchise whose only postseason appearance was as the Montreal Expos in 1981. The Pirates, out of the postseason since Francisco Cabrera’s two-out, two-run hit for Atlanta in 1992, would host the post-Frank McCourt Los Angeles Dodgers.
“Everybody feels good, and they’re looking for the break,” Washington manager Davey Johnson said. “They’ve battled hard. We’ve had a lot of close games. It’s a good time for a break.”
The Angels’ Mike Trout, one of a record five rookies making the trip to Kauffman Stadium for tonight’s game, leads the AL with a .341 average. After spending the start of the season in the minors, he’s the first player with 10 homers and 20 steals at the break without having any in April, according to STATS LLC.
“A game-changer, offensively, defensively,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “The kid has got a lot of talent, a ton. Usually when you see a guy that fast, you don’t anticipate him hitting the ball that hard. What he’s doing at 20, it’s really pretty amazing.”
And at 20, Trout’s not even the All-Star baby. That would be 19-year-old Bryce Harper, the youngest position player in All-Star history and the third-youngest ever behind Bob Feller in 1938 and Dwight Gooden in 1984.
Harper made his big league debut on April 28, the same night Trout played his first game this season. Combining with staff ace Stephen Strasburg for a capital dynamic duo, Harper is hitting .282 with eight homers and 25 RBIs in 63 games. No wonder the team put up a banner reading “NATITUDE PARK.”
“I can hardly pronounce the dang word,” Johnson said with a smile.
Alongside the newbies are plenty of familiar faces.
Hamilton, who hit four homers for Texas at Baltimore on May 8, and Toronto’s Jose Bautista will both be there after hitting 27 homers apiece in the first half. Despite being slowed by back spasms and an intestinal virus, Hamilton leads the AL with 75 RBIs.
Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutchen leads with the NL with a .362 average, while Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun is tops with 24 homers after successfully overturning a 50-game suspension for a positive drug test last October. In his first season with St. Louis, Carlos Beltran has a league-high 65 RBIs.
But for many, the mound has provided the biggest surprises. Phil Humber of the Chicago White Sox started it with a perfect game at Seattle on April 21, and the Angels’ Jered Weaver pitched a no-hitter against Minnesota on May 2. Then Johan Santana threw the first no-hitter in the Mets’ 51-season history on June 1, accomplishing the feat against St. Louis in the franchise’s 8,020th game. Seven days later in Seattle, a record-tying six pitchers combined for a no-hitter against the Dodgers, and on June 13 San Francisco’s Matt Cain pitched a perfect game against Houston.
R.A. Dickey followed his offseason climb of Mount Kilimanjaro to rise to the top of NL pitchers, going 12-1 to move into position for an All-Star start. The 37-year-old could become only the second knuckleballer to earn the honor, the first since Dutch Leonard for the AL in 1943, according to STATS.
He even studies baseball’s past. He had a biography of Stan Musial in his locker earlier this season.
“Nerdy? I would say more eccentric would be the right word,” teammate David Wright said. “He’s extremely intelligent. He’s cultured probably well beyond any of us. I think it fits in great with the knuckleball. It goes hand and hand.”
In the AL, Weaver is 10-1 with a major league-best 1.96 ERA. Tampa Bay’s David Price and the Rangers’ Matt Harrison are tied for wins at 11-4.
And while the Rangers’ Ron Washington will be in the AL dugout for the second straight season, following a 5-1 loss last year in Phoenix, Tony La Russa will be running the NL. The retired manager of the World Series champion Cardinals will be the fourth inactive skipper in All-Star history, the first since the AL’s Bob Lemon after he was fired by George Steinbrenner in 1979.
“I think it’s one of the best experiences you can have,” La Russa said. “As soon as I was asked, I said yes before the question was finished.”