Intensity high in 81st Midsummer Classic

Intensity high in 81st Midsummer Classic

ANAHEIM -- Joe Mauer, Robinson Cano and Carl Crawford. Here is the bottom third of your loaded American League All-Star lineup.

Roy Halladay, Tim Lincecum, Josh Johnson, Chris Carpenter and Tim Hudson. Nice middle-relief corps, National League.

Irresistible force, meet the immovable object.

Welcome to Angel Stadium and the 2010 Major League All-Star Game, where the gap between the two leagues appears to be narrowing to a razor's edge.

Looking to finally break through after four consecutive one-run losses and rule the Midsummer Classic for the first time since 1996, the NL appears well stocked for the challenge of claiming World Series home-field advantage at last for its league champion.

Since this game acquired tangible significance in 2003 following the draw in Milwaukee, the Americans are 7-0.

As manager of the reigning World Series champion Yankees, AL manager Joe Girardi needs no counsel on how big this showcase is.

"As far as the importance of the game, I think it's extremely important," Girardi said. "We were the recipients of home-field advantage last year, and I know it only matters for the World Series, but in our home games during the playoffs, we were 7-1.

"So, we understand that that home-field advantage is very important to one American League club this year."

Girardi won't have his personal security blanket available with Yankees closer Mariano Rivera withdrawing because of an ailment. Girardi's All-Star Game closer will come from a pool of strong arms, but none as accomplished or as experienced as Mr. Automatic, Rivera.

The Rays' David Price, bringing his electric stuff, will take the ball at twilight from Girardi. The Rockies' Ubaldo Jimenez -- just as fast, just as gifted as Price -- handles the opening assignment for the NL.

A procession of rocket arms will follow the starters from both sides, but a slight edge on the mound appears to belong to the NL on this occasion. And Phillies manager Charlie Manuel doesn't even have the Washington wunderkind, Stephen Strasburg, to summon.

"We have some real talented pitchers on the National League squad," Manuel said when asked, for some reason, to explain his choice of Jimenez. "But this guy is 15-1, his record speaks for itself."

Jimenez will confront some familiar names atop the AL order: Ichiro Suzuki, Derek Jeter and Miguel Cabrera, followed by Josh Hamilton, Vladimir Guerrero and Evan Longoria. Then comes that top-of-the-line bottom third.

"It's a pretty good team we have here," Mauer, a three-time batting champion at 27, said through a handsome smile.

Good luck, Elias and Co., finding the last time Mauer batted seventh, anywhere.

"You know, it's a hard lineup to make when you have two guys at the bottom like Carl Crawford and Robinson Cano," Girardi said, adding that Crawford gives him essentially a double leadoff charge in concert with the inimitable Ichiro.

"Derek Jeter has been to this All-Star Game many, many years in a row, and we just thought he deserved to be second."

Jeter is making his sixth All-Star start, five fewer than teammate Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod will provide some thunder on a lethal AL bench also featuring Home Run Derby champion David Ortiz, Big Papi's Boston teammate Adrian Beltre and Toronto mashers Vernon Wells and Jose Bautista.

With the formidable likes of Joey Votto, Adrian Gonzalez, Corey Hart, Matt Holliday and Scott Rolen anchoring its bench, the NL might be even deeper and more deadly in the late innings.

Price will find Albert Pujols waiting in the No. 3 hole, followed by Ryan Howard and David Wright, attaching high importance to keeping Hanley Ramirez and Martin Prado from jump-starting the NL attack.

"All these All-Star Games lately have been close," Crawford, the MVP of the 2009 show, said. "One play can make the difference. Guys know how important this is. We've got to find a way to get timely hits."

Or timely catches, like the one Crawford made stealing a home run from the Rockies' Brad Hawpe in St. Louis last summer. It prevented the NL from seizing a seventh-inning lead, and the AL prevailed, 4-3, with Rivera notching his fourth All-Star save.

"The priority is to win the ballgame," Manuel said. "That's why we are here, and the home-field advantage Joe is talking about definitely comes into play.

"My team has been to the World Series the last couple of years, and we definitely know the importance of that. That's exactly what we are going to try to do."

Representing the hometown Angels, and welcoming former teammate Guerrero back, center fielder Torii Hunter is looking for a lucky No. 13 for the AL in a bench role.

"We've got a 12-game winning streak," he said. "We're going for 13, playing for home-field advantage, no matter who it is. Hopefully, it's the Angels. That's what you play for."

Like his buddy Crawford, Hunter has stolen a home run on this stage. In 2002, in the draw in Milwaukee, he soared above the wall in the first inning to rob Barry Bonds.

The AL has been soaring ever since, leaving the NL empty-handed.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.