As the All-Star Game approaches, something really has changed in baseball. Despite a 13-game winless streak, the NL's chances at winning the Midsummer Classic appear better than they've been in a long time, for one simple reason: starting pitchers.
Don't believe the people who tell you that pitching is 75 or 90 percent of baseball, but it matters an awful lot. And at this point in time, the NL has it in spades.
The American League still has baseball's best teams, and it has the reigning World Series champions. But baseball's best pitchers are in the NL. Ubaldo Jimenez, Roy Halladay, Adam Wainwright and Josh Johnson, in some order, have been four of the Majors' five best pitchers this year, and none of them looks like much of a fluke. They all have the stuff, the command and the track record to indicate that they're elite pitchers in the primes of their respective careers.
On the AL side, Cliff Lee is certainly outstanding, probably the only AL pitcher who belongs in the class with the four aforementioned Senior Circuit hurlers. Jon Lester and David Price are pretty fine pitchers themselves, as well.
But the NL can trot out four starters who simply outclass what the AL has to offer, and that doesn't even include two-time defending Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum or the resurgent Tim Hudson. It's the NL's biggest advantage in this year's All-Star Game, and a great reason to think that the AL's unbeaten streak finally will come to an end on Tuesday in Anaheim.
If Charlie Manuel manages aggressively, using them each for two innings, he could get eight innings out of those four pitchers and then hand it over to the closer of his choice. Perhaps Jonathan Broxton would make a nice choice. Alternately, he could slot in Hudson and/or Lincecum and use Wainwright as his closer. It's a fine set of choices to have.
The overall balance of power in the leagues probably hasn't shifted. But when it comes to the cream of starting pitching, right now it's all in the NL. And that could well be enough to turn the tide in the All-Star Game.
Now, here are three more reasons the NL can and will win for the first time since Ken Caminiti and Mike Piazza homered at Veterans Stadium to lead the NL to a 6-0 win in 1996.
Baseball's best player. In a down year, Albert Pujols sports a .971 OPS. He has a former batting champion and MVP runner-up hitting behind him, and teams still pitch around him. If there's one player in the game you game-plan around, it's Pujols.
And he's playing for the NL.
Mind you, Pujols has played for the NL eight times in the past nine years and has yet to come home a winner. That doesn't change the fact that if this were a pickup game, and you were picking sides, Pujols would be the first guy you'd pick. Give him an opening, he'll take it. You can be sure that Joe Girardi has already given a thought or two about how to retire the three-time MVP. It's not easy.
No Mo, fewer problems. The AL's run of dominance in the All-Star Game has coincided very neatly with the newest golden era of Yankees success in the regular season and in October. That's not entirely a coincidence for quite a few reasons. The Yankees' smart spending has raised the bar for their competition in the Junior Circuit, and that improved competition is surely a part of why the AL has been so tough to beat in the All-Star Game, Interleague Play and the World Series.
But on a much smaller level, there's this: The Yankees and the AL have both had the greatest closer in history, Mariano Rivera. Mo has saved three of the past five All-Star wins for the AL and four total in his career. In eight All-Star appearances -- starting in 1997, the first year of the AL's roll -- Rivera has never been charged with an earned run. But he's not available this time around. Rivera is injured and won't be pitching for the AL. That's a big loss. Just ask Girardi how he'd like to go through the World Series without Rivera.
Tactical weapons. Let's put aside Omar Infante for a moment. Aside from the controversial Braves selection, Manuel has a slew of tactical options at his fingertips. If he needs a defensive replacement, he's got them: Players like Michael Bourn and Scott Rolen can come in and hold down the fort with their gloves. If he needs speed on the bases, he has Bourn, Brandon Phillips and Jose Reyes.
And if he needs to change the game in one swing, you can believe he has the options for that. Joey Votto, Ryan Howard and Adrian Gonzalez represent serious danger coming off the bench. Matt Holliday and Chris Young are threats from the right side.
Manuel even has tactical options on his pitching staff. Arthur Rhodes is a lefty-killer, and while Evan Meek was another controversial choice, he'll be there if the NL needs a ground ball.
The truth is that anything can happen in a single baseball game, especially one between two teams with elite talent. It's time to see what "anything" means this year, but the NL has to be feeling good about its chances.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.