DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Major League Baseball's All-Star Game was held last night. The American League shut out the National League, 3 to nothing. Now, like any regulation game, there were 54 total outs recorded, but it seemed like there were only three that really mattered. Those were the batters set down in the eighth inning, when retiring New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera was on the mound. NPR's Mike Pesca was at the game.
MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Since 2003, the league that wins the All-Star Game gets to be the home team during the World Series. A small change, the main consequence of which was to transform the All-Star Game from merely an exhibition into mostly an exhibition. But this All-Star Game was more ceremonial than most, so much so that Jim Leyland, manager of the AL side, described his task this way.
JIM LEYLAND: To be honest with you, this was one of the toughest games I ever had to manage because really, the show tonight was - even though we won the game and a lot of guys did a very, very good job - I don't want to slight anybody - but this was really about trying to manipulate so we got Mariano at the right time.
PESCA: Now Leyland, who's won World Series and multiple manager-of-the-year awards, is a crusty, old sod who is as likely to be stymied by a piece of baseball strategy as a bear is by a loosely tied Hefty bag. What Leyland was talking about was the pas de deux of when and how to insert Yankee closer Mariano Rivera into the game. The decision was made that Rivera would pitch in the eighth inning, not the ninth - which he has dominated beyond precedent, for the last 17 years. This was a surprise to AL reliever Glen Perkins, who was tossing in the bullpen.
GLEN PERKINS: Yeah. I mean, I was warming up there, in the seventh, and the phone rang and - you know, I guess I thought that either I was going in or Nathan was going in. He said - the bullpen coach said, Mariano's in. And so I went and sat down. And the guys down there asked if I was going in the game. I said no, Mo's going in; and they didn't believe me.
PESCA: Leyland later explained that Rivera was not held in reserve because had the National League staged a go-ahead rally in the eighth, they wouldn't have had to bat in the bottom of the ninth.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHEERING)
PESCA: So in the eighth, the strains of "Enter Sandman" rang out, and in came No. 42. At this point, the American League had a 3-to-nothing lead, and the Nationals had only mustered two hits. The AL had been primed for this moment.
Before the game, Rivera had addressed the team. His fellow relief pitcher, Joe Nathan, said the speech was full of dignity and humility. But such is the level of the respect Rivera engenders that...
JOE NATHAN: He could have talked about peanut butter and jelly, and we would all have been like, yeah, that's pretty cool.
PESCA: And as Rivera took the mound, all of his teammates remained in the dugout, applauding. Then they moved out of the dugout and broke into a standing ovation before taking their positions. Across the diamond, the NL players were doing much of the same. Rivera did not allow a hit in this game, either. Afterward, he said that the outpouring of appreciation nearly brought him to tears.
MANNY RIVERA: I think that the only one that will top this is the World Series. Besides that - I mean, has been outstanding, I think especially when you don't - expecting this. I wanted to pitch; the rest was plus - you know, the rest was indescribable.
PESCA: Rivera, as a five-time World Series champion and the all-time leader in saves, is more than just dominant; he's durable. More and more, his position - closer - is chewing up arms. The website FanGraphs recently pointed out that of the top-10 closers under the age of 30 in 2010, exactly zero are effective pitchers today, with the majority having had surgery. Nathan, the Rangers closer who actually got the save for the AL, knows the risks too well.
NATHAN: It takes a toll, for sure, you know. Getting yourself prepared, and getting yourself ready day in and day out, you know, most of your pitches are under stress. It's just preparing yourself, doing your job and hopefully, you don't blow.
PESCA: Nathan spoke with an ice pack wrapped around his arm. The players don't hold much back, even if the All-Star Game is mainly an exhibition. Or more accurately, on this night not merely or mostly an exhibition but proudly an exhibition, of the 84th All-Star Game's most valuable player, and one of the game's greats.
GREENE: Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.