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Final Vote going OK for Okajima

Final Vote going OK for Okajima

Tight races in each league project for a thrilling finish with millions of votes yet to be cast for the Monster All-Star Final Vote.

In the American League, there was some international intrigue as Detroit's Jeremy Bonderman starred in a "Bondo '07" ad -- and then was promptly passed in the latest Final Vote update by Red Sox reliever Hideki Okajima of Japan.

In the National League, Chris Young of the Padres held onto a slim lead over Tuesday night starter Carlos Zambrano of the Cubs. But watch out for the city of Ashland, Ky., which declared that this Fourth of July will be "Vote for Brandon Webb Day" in honor of its native son.

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Oh, yes. This is getting good now.

The Monster All-Star Final Vote shifted into another gear on Tuesday, with nearly nine million votes already cast heading into the final 48 hours of voting at MLB.com. You are choosing from among five nominees per ballot -- 10 pitchers for the first time -- and exercising the right to send those 32nd and final roster selections to the 78th All-Star Game on July 10 at AT&T Park in San Francisco.

Both races are tightly packed, and the stage is set for what could be the best finishes in the six years of the Final Vote. Genius campaigning and viral fan support is likely to be the difference-maker in 2007. Voting will conclude at 6 p.m. ET on Thursday, and winners will be announced on MLB.com shortly thereafter.

Okajima jumped ahead of Bonderman, the first-day leader, to pace a tight race among the five candidates in the AL. They are followed in order by Pat Neshek of the Twins, Kelvim Escobar of the Angels and Roy Halladay of the Blue Jays.

Young continued to hold a small lead over the other four pitchers on the NL ballot, followed closely by Zambrano, Roy Oswalt of the Astros, Tom Gorzelanny of the Pirates and Webb of the Diamondbacks.

The sixth annual Monster All-Star Final Vote ballot commenced exclusively on MLB.com at approximately 7 p.m. ET on Sunday, with the nominees presented by each league's manager -- Tony La Russa in the NL and Jim Leyland in the AL. The latest update was through 4 p.m. ET.

In addition to MLB.com, fans also are casting many votes via their mobile phones by texting the word "Vote" to 36197 in the U.S. or to 88555 in Canada. In either case, that will prompt a ballot to be sent to your mobile phone and you then can text your pick.

Okajima has been a brilliant addition to the Boston bullpen this season, fashioning an 0.78 WHIP with 13 holds and 0.88 ERA in 38 appearances. On Red Sox regional network NESN Monday night, his late-inning cohort, Jonathan Papelbon, offered this slogan: "Get my man to San Fran, it's closer to Japan."

Okajima held a news conference with Japanese media following Monday night's game -- designed to heighten interest in the Final Vote over in Japan. "It would be a great honor if I get to the All-Star Game," Okajima said then. "But I can't get there myself. I can do my best to pitch well. But I have to rely on the fans to vote for me. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and that's why I want to play in the All-Star Game this year."

Imaginative grassroots campaigns are characteristic each year in the Final Vote, and this year is no exception. But one that certainly jumped out on Tuesday was the announcement out of Webb's hometown. Its press release begins: "Nothing is more patriotic on the Fourth of July than an American exercising their right to vote. That is why the City of Ashland, Ky. declared tomorrow 'Vote for Brandon Webb Day' in honor of its native son being one of five pitchers eligible for the remaining roster spot on the National League All-Star team as part of the Monster.com 2007 All-Star Final Vote."

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"The City of Ashland is so proud of Brandon's accomplishments thus far in the Major Leagues," said Ashland mayor Steve Gilmore, who is urging all residents of that town and more than 300,000 residents throughout the Huntington-Ashland metro area to vote for the reigning NL Cy Young winner. "He deserves to be an All-Star next week in San Francisco so we will do all that we can to get him there."

Webb, 8-6 with a 3.26 ERA and the D-backs' lone representative in the All-Star Game last year in Pittsburgh, was a 1997 graduate of Ashland-Blazer High School in Ashland and later starred for the University of Kentucky in nearby Lexington. He and his wife, Alicia, still reside in Ashland, a town with a population of 21,981 in northeastern Kentucky, during the offseason with their daughter, Reagan.

In addition, Diamondbacks president Derrick Hall urged all his staffers to take a moment to vote for Webb. The entire staff stopped working and focused on getting their pitcher to San Francisco. And Webb's teammate, Orlando Hudson, has a message on Webb's behalf being sent to the full Diamondbacks e-mail database.

Bonderman has been given a James Bond allure in this Final Vote race by the marketing folks behind the Tigers. Consider this ad that ran in the Detroit Free Press on Tuesday morning: "FROM DETROIT WITH GLOVE -- BONDO '07". A bat and ball form the shape of a pistol. Ian Fleming would have been proud of this one. Also, the Tigers were setting up six computer terminals at Comerica Park so that fans could vote during the night's game there.

In New York for his team's series against the Yankees, Neshek just kept right on blogging. The only one of the 10 candidates who has his own high-profile Web site, and his own MLBlog, Neshek wrote in the wee hours after the Twins' loss to Roger Clemens and the Yanks: "Hey guys, I just got back to the hotel here in NYC and am surfing around the Internet. I just noticed the results and I like where we are at ... striking distance. Let's keep this thing close until Wednesday and hold an all-day vote-a-thon (if that's a word) on Thursday while some of the competitors sleep! Remember the voting is unlimited, so go nuts and don't vote just once!"

Neshek said in his blog that he hopes MySpace, Facebook and YouTube users would turn this into a viral Web 2.0 victory for his campaign. In fact, there is already a hot YouTube video in circulation that is not altogether that farfetched.

Neshek's teammates who arrived at the ballpark for early batting practice on Tuesday wore the shirts that have emblazoned the slogan of the Twins' campaign for their reliever "Pitch in for Pat: Vote Neshek!" It was a sea of gray on the field with so many players wearing the t-shirts and Neshek admittedly is amazed by all the attention and support. "I've been touched by how the players are pumping me up," he said. "And people on my website are going crazy."

While the Wrigley Field marquee back home at Clark and Addison streets was encouraging Cub fans to vote for him, Zambrano (10-6) was lobbying for himself on the field in Washington. He gave up one run, three hits and four walks over 6 2/3 innings in beating the Nationals and exited to a standing ovation from the Cub fans in the crowd of 30,106. Zambrano joins Milwaukee's Ben Sheets and Los Angeles' Brad Penny as 10-game winners in the NL, and is the first Cub pitcher to win 10 by the All-Star break since Jon Lieber won 11 in 2001.

"There are some guys in the competition who have better numbers than me, speaking of ERA and other things," Zambrano said. "I just have more wins than they have. Whatever happens, happens. If I don't go to the All-Star Game, I go to Venezuela and enjoy my time there in my country. If I go, I'll enjoy that with my family, also."

Oswalt had the benefit of pitching at home (and thus a captive audience of prompted mobile voters) while Zambrano was making that start, but he did not fare as well in his outing. The two-time 20-game winner came away with a no-decision in allowing four runs on 10 hits over seven innings of the marathon game against Philadelphia.

Toronto was one of a few teams that never had a Final Vote contestant until now. Do the Blue Jays really need to find unique ways to tell the world about what Halladay can do? He has been one of a handful of names one thinks about when you ask: Who is the most dominating pitcher of this decade? Yet, campaigning must go on.

The Blue Jays reported that some of their efforts include: TV/radio broadcast mentions, including a "scrolling ticker" promoting the campaign throughout the majority of Tuesday night's broadcast; a pregame radio show on FAN 590, with numerous ongoing mentions each night; messaging on a stadium billboard; a FAN 590 e-newsletter, which will go out Thursday morning and provide the voting link with a prompt for "Doc"; mass radio drops; ads and informal plugs on Canadian media; a possible e-mail blast to Rogers Wireless consumer database; and lots of campaigning by Halladay's teammates.

The Monster All-Star Final Vote program has seen nearly 60 million votes cast since its inception in 2002, including a record 18.6 million last year when fans chose A.J. Pierzynski of the White Sox and Nomar Garciaparra of the Dodgers. Previous winners of the Monster All-Star Final Vote include: Scott Podsednik (AL, 2005); Oswalt (NL, 2005); Hideki Matsui (AL, 2004); Bobby Abreu (NL, 2004); Jason Varitek (AL, 2003); Geoff Jenkins (NL, 2003); Johnny Damon (AL, 2002); and Andruw Jones (NL, 2002).

The 78th Major League Baseball All-Star Game, which will determine home-field advantage in the 2007 World Series, 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 of all festivities surrounding the All-Star Game. XM will provide satellite radio play-by-play coverage of the XM All-Star Futures Game as well as the State Farm Home Run Derby and Midsummer Classic.

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

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