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A.J., Nomar lead way in Final Vote

A.J., Nomar lead way in Final Vote

The Monster 2006 All-Star Final Vote is down to its final hours, so time is running out for clubs to hang big signs over highways, for teammates to be campaign assistants, and for fans, family and friends around the world to submit as many ballots as possible to get two more deserving Major Leaguers into the All-Star Game in Pittsburgh on July 11.

It all ends tonight at MLB.com with a 6 p.m. ET voting deadline, and then the American and National League rosters finally will be complete. Voting began Sunday night and has continued at a torrid pace, and entering the final day the closest overall races in the Final Vote's five-year history had one notable adjustment in the updated standings.

A.J. Pierzynski, bidding to join Scott Podsednik as back-to-back AL Final Vote winners from the White Sox, took the lead from Twins rookie pitcher Francisco Liriano in the last update at 6 a.m. ET this morning. They were followed in order by Travis Hafner of the Indians, Justin Verlander of the Tigers and Ramon Hernandez of the Orioles.

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Nomar Garciaparra of the Dodgers, bidding for his sixth All-Star appearance but his first in a new league and a new position, retained the late lead in the NL. He was followed in order by Chris Capuano of the Brewers, Bobby Abreu of the Phillies, Billy Wagner of the Mets and Chris Young of the Padres.

Just as it was at the halfway point, voting for candidates in both leagues entering the final day was tightly packed, and there still is no way to call this one. There were more than eight million votes at that halfway point, and everyone can expect an intense day of voting and creative campaigning. Things can change in a hurry around here. It's all up to you, and that's why the Final Vote was created in 2002. No squawking about who was left off the All-Star team. Just vote right up until the deadline and make yourself heard by action.

"Since the All-Star Game is about who the fans want to see the most, it made sense to come up with a way for fans to be the ones to select the final player," said Gregg Klayman, director of fantasy and interactive games for MLB Advanced Media and originator of the Final Vote concept. "Years ago, there was no good way to do this, since last-second paper balloting would have been next to impossible to pull off. Luckily, the Internet showed up one day to make things like this possible for fans to participate in. The response we've gotten in the program's first four years shows that fans have a tremendous interest in being the ones to have the final say."

The final say is here, and here is a closer look at the candidates:

American League
Travis Hafner: No matter what happens, "Pronk" will get credit for one of the best one-game "statements" for Final Voters since the process began in 2002. It was a true fireworks explosion on the Fourth of July when he went 3-for-5 with two homers, four RBIs and 10 total bases in a 9-1 rout of the Yankees. That brought him up to .318 with 24 homers and 70 RBIs. Hafner also hit that grand slam over the weekend that made it four already, meaning he is one of just five Major Leaguers in history to have that many by the break.

The Indians have had more than 30 computer terminals set up around Jacobs Field for fans to vote for Hafner during this homestand. They also have "Vote Pronk" T-shirts and buttons, and their gameday staff is wearing "election hats" with the buttons. On an airing of "WWE Raw" earlier this week, wrestling superstar Jerry "The King" Lawler even gave Hafner a campaign push, telling viewers to get on their computers and Pronk the Vote.

"A lot of people have come up to me and told me they've voted for me 50 or 100 times," said Hafner, among those who finished behind Hideki Matsui in the 2004 AL Final Vote. "The support of all the people in Cleveland has been great."

Ramon Hernandez: The Orioles' catcher is the first to represent his club in the Final Vote, and there definitely is an argument that he has All-Star numbers. He is putting together a career year with a .274 average, 15 homers, 59 RBIs and 27 opponents caught stealing, and he returned to the lineup Wednesday night at Chicago. Before the game, Hernandez said before that game that he will not be heartbroken if someone else is picked. But his manager -- who clearly has been his major campaigning force ever since he told Guillen that Hernandez should be on the Final Vote list -- wants to see him in Pittsburgh.

"I'd love to see Ramon get it," Sam Perlozzo said. "Honest to God, he's done a great job for us. It was a great pick up, numbers-wise. ... You never know when you're going to have a first half like that again, so when one of your guys does it, you want to see them rewarded."

Francisco Liriano: Those who have been watching this space this past few days can see the excitement level in this Twins rookie change just by reading his quotes. At first he wasn't sure about all the attention, which is normal for a clubhouse newbie. But this is the Final Vote. It's the All-Star Game. "I really hope to go," Liriano says now. "It means a lot to me that they want me to go and are helping me, too. Hopefully, I'll get the chance to go."

The 9-1 record and 1.99 ERA speak for itself. So did his high-profile masterpiece during Roger Clemens' June 22 season debut in Houston. But Liriano is certainly right in recognizing the kind of help he is getting. Consider:

Twins representatives were standing during afternoon rush hour with "Vote Liriano" banners over two well-traveled local thoroughfares -- both I-394 and Penn Avenue as well as I-35 W and Diamond Lake Road -- and will do the same there Thursday morning. In addition, the Twins will be campaigning at Nicollet Mall during lunch hour on Thursday. And as for the field personnel who have Liriano's back, just consider the sight of rotation partner Johan Santana sitting his Kansas City hotel room with a computer, just cranking out vote after vote right here. Consider this quote from his manager, Ron Gardenhire: "Our computers are on fire in here. We have to believe we did some good in here. ... Everybody knows who he is and what he's doing."

A.J. Pierzynski: Probably the funniest campaign so far is the one being run by the White Sox, who helped send Scott Podsednik to last year's All-Star Game this way. Now they are engineering the "Punch A.J." campaign to get their catcher to Pittsburgh as the AL's 32nd player. Let's just say that Pierzynski, one of the AL batting leaders with a .326 average and one of the most hard-nosed competitors around, is one of the most enigmatic players among his Major League peers.

"I thought it was awesome, and I know a lot of people want to do that," White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said with a wry smile of punching A.J., both online for the Final Vote and a few times offline at the game. "In the meanwhile, I think it's a great thing to have. I think it's great entertainment."

Pierzynski went 1-for-4 with an RBI on Wednesday in a 4-2 win over Baltimore. And his work handling a pitching staff that includes Jon Garland, who won his fourth straight decision Wednesday, has been notable. Off the field, Pierzynski is helping his own cause. He already was scheduled to sign autographs with teammate Joe Crede from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Thursday at the Fun Time Stage during White Sox Day at Taste of Chicago. But the timing couldn't have worked out much better for the White Sox catcher.

"Maybe I should walk around with, like, a cop or something. Maybe play some music or something," said Pierzynski with a smile. "Whatever it takes." Then he added: "I'm just honored to be on the list."

Justin Verlander: He and Liriano are the first AL pitchers to show up on a Final Vote ballot. He also shares something else in common with Liriano, because his is another remarkable case of exploding onto the Major League scene as a rookie. Verlander, who appeared in two games last season, already is a 10-game winner and a big reason Detroit has the best record in baseball.

So far he is saying all the things that younger players who appear on the Final Vote ballot tend to say (see Liriano above). It's kind of hard for a rookie to campaign for himself when baseball tradition generally says you earn your stripes quietly among a clubhouse full of veterans.

"I haven't voted for myself yet, and I don't intend on it, unless I hear through the grapevine I'm just one vote away," Verlander said. "I think that's for the fans, and that's their decision, not mine."

Verlander just made his last statement for voters Tuesday night. It was a no-decision in the loss at Oakland, but it was another seven strong innings.

National League
Bobby Abreu: There have been no multiple Final Vote winners yet, and the Phillies outfielder -- who won this honor in 2004 -- is the only one in position to do so this year. He leads the Majors with 77 walks and is tops in the NL with his .442 on-base percentage, and in Tuesday's game, he was among those with key hits during a fourth-inning that started a rally eventually leading to a victory over the Padres.

"I think I'm having a good season so far," said Abreu, who stole the show last year by demolishing CENTURY 21 Home Run Derby records at Detroit. "I'll have a couple of days to see if I make it."

Abreu's candidacy marks the fourth time a Phillies player has appeared on the Final Vote ballot. Besides his other selection, the Phillies had pitchers Brett Myers and Wagner among the choices last year; fans went with Roy Oswalt of Houston. Abreu's teammates, Shane Victorino and All-Star Ryan Howard, have been manning the computers to get behind him. "I'll do whatever I can," Victorino said.

Chris Capuano: The Brewers, pioneers of the grassroots-campaign method by helping Geoff Jenkins win the 2003 NL Final Vote, provided their "Top 10 Reasons You Should 'Vote Cappy.'" We'll let them speak for themselves with today's Capuano update:

1. Because he is smarter than you (graduated valedictorian from his high school class at Cathedral High School in Springfield, Mass., and Phi Beta Kappa from Duke) and he enjoys yoga.
2. Lefties always do it right. His 106 strikeouts are the most among National League southpaws and stands third in the Majors among lefties.
3. Because everyone likes to cheer for the underdog.
4. The fastest pickoff move in baseball. He has more pickoffs (16) than any other Major League pitcher over the past two seasons.
5. He is a Leo, strong and a good leader. He leads his team with nine victories and is tied for third in the National League in wins.
6. His Italian blood keeps him competitive on the mound.
7. He once saved a whale while working in an orphanage in Central America (well that isn't completely true, but he is a really, really great guy).
8. When it comes to pitching, he is all about quality. He leads the Majors in quality starts with 16.
9. Enjoys the rivalry the Brewers have with our neighbors to the south. Has a 2-0 record with a 0.00 ERA in a pair of starts this season against the Cubs, including a five-hit shutout on April 29 at Wrigley Field and -- lookout, Cub fans -- Cappy is pitching Thursday against Chicago.
10. Three is never a crowd. Carlos (Lee) and Derrick (Turnbow) need a chaperone in Pittsburgh.

Nomar Garciaparra: Probably the biggest question is whether a guy can hit around .360 and not go to the All-Star Game, especially when he has the marquee name to match, but that's for voters to decide. The five-time All-Star is trying to get there for the first time as a first baseman, and it's the first time a Dodger has been in the Final Vote. Here are some ways he is being touted:

Gigantic posters throughout Dodger Stadium have been urging fans to vote, the club has reached out to all the local radio stations to spread the word, and during each one of Garciaparra's at-bats, the "Vote Nomar" button is on DodgerVision. There also will be an ad in Thursday's Los Angeles Times mentioning the vote.

The Dodgers are one of two clubs represented in this overall Final Vote that have front-office MLBlogs as a new weapon in the grassroots arsenal (White Sox are the other), and in LA's case there are two. Dodger legend Tommy Lasorda pushed Nomar on Tommy Lasorda's World, and there has been plenty of that two-way communication between club and Nomar voters this week on the Inside the Dodgers blog. It's another way the Final Vote is evolving.

"With Nomar in the lead going into the final hours, I can't help but think that the front office's new blog has played an important role in reaching out to our fans," said Josh Rawitch, the Dodgers' director of public relations and primary author of "Inside the Dodgers." They have really stepped up over the last few days and we're hopeful that our grassroots campaign will help push him over the top and send him to Pittsburgh where he deserves to be."

Billy Wagner: The Mets' closer was just given a video tribute before Wednesday's game because he recorded his 300th career save a night earlier, and he also was wowed by an expensive "ascending star" glass sculpture in the Mets' clubhouse -- with engraved inscriptions to be added in the near future by members of the team's brass.

"It's a nice way to say you've accomplished a lot in this game," a humbled Wagner said of the treatment.

A Final Vote also is a nice way. Not enough people voted for him last year when he was an NL candidate as a Phillie. Wagner's save Tuesday was his 16th this season for the team with the NL's best record, and it also made him just one of 19 pitchers to reach 300 saves.

"It would be nice if they could vote him to the team," Mets manager Willie Randolph said. "He deserves it. We had a lot of games that weren't real close early on, so he doesn't have as many saves as he would normally. But he's done his job."

Chris Young: The Padres 6-foot-10 right-hander and former Princeton basketball player is fresh off winning NL Pitcher of the Month. In five June starts, he fashioned a 1.17 ERA, the lowest in the league. In two consecutive starts, Young caught everyone's attention by taking a no-hitter deep into each game.

This is the second time a Padres player has appeared on the Final Vote. Ryan Klesko was among the choices in 2002, when Andruw Jones of the Braves won. Teammate Jake Peavy has been among those campaigning for him, but Young has stayed low-key.

"I'd love to play [in the All-Star Game], love to go represent the team," Young said. "It would be a big honor, a thrill, but it's not going to be my focus. I'm not concerned about it. I'm really happy for Trevor [Hoffman]. He definitely belongs in the game."

So those are the 10 names, and you get to choose one from each league. It's not an easy choice, but it's all up to you from here.

Final Vote history
Here is the rundown of winners since the Final Vote was introduced on MLB.com:

2005: Scott Podsednik (White Sox) in AL, Roy Oswalt (Astros) in NL.
2004: Hideki Matsui (Yankees) in AL, Bobby Abreu (Phillies) in NL.
2003: Jason Varitek (Red Sox) in AL, Geoff Jenkins (Brewers) in NL.
2002: Johnny Damon (Red Sox) in AL, Andruw Jones (Braves) in NL.

• Seven of the first eight Final Vote winners have come from different clubs. The only exception was Boston, which was successfully represented by Damon in 2002 and Jason Varitek in 2003. New clubs with choices this year include Baltimore (Hernandez) and Detroit (Verlander) in the AL, and the Dodgers (Garciaparra) and Mets (Wagner) in the NL.

• Now that Pierzynski is on the Final Vote ballot, it marks the fifth year in a row that the White Sox have had at least one representative. No other club has had a choice for fans every year.

• It usually means a first All-Star trip for someone. Of the eight players selected that way, only two -- Jones of the Braves and Matsui of the Yankees -- had been an All-Star before. Possible first-timers from this ballot include three in the AL (Hafner, Liriano and Verlander) and two in the NL (Capuano and Young).

• No player from a West division team has won the Final Vote.

Final Vote, but not final voting
It has been a long and empowering end of online balloting for fans at MLB.com and the 30 club sites, and it won't end with the Final Vote, either. For the fourth consecutive year, fans around the world will have the opportunity to participate in the Midsummer Classic when they cast their votes for the Ted Williams Most Valuable Player Award, presented by Chevrolet, at the Midsummer Classic via the Monster 2006 All-Star Game MVP Vote on MLB.com.

Beginning in the sixth inning of the Midsummer Classic, fans can cast their votes for the Ted Williams Most Valuable Player Award. The voting will continue until the MVP is announced immediately following the end of the game.

The online fan vote will count for 20 percent, with the other 80 percent coming onsite from the Baseball Writers Association of America and the announcers from the All-Star Game's three broadcast rights holders: FOX Sports, ESPN Radio and MLB International.

Immediately following the conclusion of the All-Star Game, the Ted Williams Most Valuable Player will receive the Arch Ward Trophy, which was first presented in 1962 as a tribute to the man who founded the All-Star Game in 1933.

The 77th All-Star Game will be televised nationally by FOX Sports, in Canada by Rogers Sportsnet and Sportsnet HD and televised around the world by Major League Baseball International, with pregame ceremonies beginning at 8 p.m. ET. ESPN Radio will provide exclusive, national radio coverage, while MLB.com will provide extensive online coverage and MLB Radio will provide exclusive play-by-play coverage of the game on the Internet. XM Satellite Radio will provide satellite radio play-by-play coverage of the XM Satellite Radio All-Star Futures Game.

Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. Team correspondents contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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