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Young, Okajima win Final Vote

Young, Okajima win Final Vote

Chris Young of the Padres and Hideki Okajima of the Red Sox are your selections in the sixth annual Monster All-Star Final Vote, which will be remembered for unique grassroots campaigns, close races, a record 23 million votes over four days and constant attention on 10 extraordinary Major League pitchers.

Balloting closed at 6 p.m. ET on Thursday at MLB.com with roughly a million votes an hour down the stretch, and your collective vote means that those two pitchers are the 32nd and final men on their respective league's rosters for the 78th All-Star Game on July 10 at AT&T Park in San Francisco.

Young will head up the coast with fellow Padres All-Stars and chief campaigners Jake Peavy and Trevor Hoffman, after leading wire-to-wire and helping himself with seven scoreless innings on Wednesday night. The 6-foot-10 right-hander broke Nomar Garciaparra's 2006 Final Vote record with more than 4.5 million votes and finished ahead of Carlos Zambrano of the Cubs, Roy Oswalt of the Astros, Brandon Webb of the Diamondbacks and Tom Gorzelanny of the Pirates.

"Obviously I've never been before, so I don't know what the best way to get in is, but I'm thrilled to go," Young said in the PETCO Park interview room immediately after being told he is an All-Star. "It's a great honor. I'm just shocked to be considered among the greatest players in the game. I'm happy to go to represent myself, the organization and my teammates."

Okajima finished with more than 4.4 million votes to close this one out ahead of Jeremy Bonderman of the Tigers, Pat Neshek of the Twins, Kelvim Escobar of the Angels and Roy Halladay of the Blue Jays. Boston thus becomes the first team to win the Final Vote three times, following victories by outfielder Johnny Damon in 2002 and catcher Jason Varitek in 2003.

"I appreciate all the people who voted for me," Okajima said through translator Jeff Yamaguchi. "American baseball fans and Japanese baseball fans, teammates, everybody. Big thanks to all the people who supported me."

Okajima joins a Red Sox All-Star contingent that includes David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Mike Lowell, Josh Beckett and Jonathan Papelbon. Anyone last spring would have been hard-pressed to imagine that a Red Sox pitcher just acquired from Japan would be an All-Star and his name would not be Daisuke Matsuzaka, a 10-game winner.

"You look at the numbers and it should be a no-brainer," said Beckett of Okajima. "He belongs on that team. The only reason he wasn't on that team before was because he's not a closer all the time. It's tough for those middle guys to get on there. It's well deserved."

Nearly a million of the total votes were cast on mobile phones, another key emerging characteristic of the Final Vote. Fans who were away from their computers during the holiday portion of the voting period were able to vote from anywhere there was signal strength, and many fans voted at ballparks wherever there was a candidate whose home team was prompting them on the giant scoreboard.

Once again, Final Vote winners unquestionably benefited from being at home during the voting period. It definitely helps to have a captive audience, as it did the previous two years for A.J. Pierzynski and Scott Podsednik of the White Sox. It was the same last year for Nomar Garciaparra of the Dodgers and for Oswalt in 2005.

The 2007 Final Vote will be remembered as the Year of the Pitcher. All-Star managers Tony La Russa of the NL and Jim Leyland of the AL presented the nominees to fans during last Sunday's Major League Baseball All-Star Game Selection Show presented by Chevrolet, giving you only pitchers to consider. The only previous time that a ballot was pitchers-only was in 2005, when La Russa also did that for an NL list.

"The Final Vote is the perfect example of how these managers are thinking and putting together their rosters for a game they need to win," FOX play-by-play man Joe Buck said during the final hours of balloting. "They want guys in this game who are used to doing their jobs. Whether it's an Okajima or a Neshek or anybody in those categories, they want specialists to try and help them win the game. I know that was La Russa's justification for (Philadelphia outfielder Aaron) Rowand. He wanted someone who could roam that big outfield in the late innings, he was thinking about defense. In years past, that was never part of the equation. It may hurt some guys. It may cost some a spot. But these managers are told to manage to win, no more ties, and because of that, they're creating their rosters accordingly."

All-Star Game Coverage

And you just determined which two extra players they will be working with on Tuesday.

Although Oswalt did not become the first two-time winner of the Final Vote, he will make it to his third All-Star Game, anyway. With about four hours remaining in the Final Vote, Major League Baseball announced he will replace Braves right-hander John Smoltz on the NL club. Smoltz, an eight-time All-Star, is unable to participate and will not attend All-Star festivities. Because Smoltz was elected via the Player Ballot, his replacement was chosen by going to the player who received the next highest amount of votes after the five original Player Ballot choices. Oswalt (7-5, 3.52 ERA, 128 innings, 89 strikeouts), ranked sixth among NL starting pitchers with 118 votes via the Player Ballot.

What would have happened had Oswalt made a late surge and also been selected via the Final Vote? Presumably the next-highest finisher on that Player Ballot would have been added, although it is a moot point now. Don't be surprised if any other also-rans in the Final Vote wind up in San Francisco, either. Roster adjustments are common in the week prior to each Midsummer Classic. Last year, for example, Twins pitcher Francisco Liriano finished second in the Final Vote to White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski, yet was then added to the AL roster due to sudden unavailability of an existing All-Star.

For Webb, it was a second unsuccessful Final Vote bid in as many tries. He was a nominee in the 2005 all-pitcher grouping as well, and this time he was beaten despite being a reigning NL Cy Young Award winner and despite having one of the most memorable campaign events staged on his behalf: "Vote for Brandon Webb Day" on the Fourth of July in his native Ashland, Ky., and surrounding region.

Campaigning took on a decidedly different look this week, and most notable was its ever-increasing reliance on technology. Neshek became the first Final Vote candidate to use a personal space on the Internet as his rallying base, with an official MLBlog and his longstanding Web site at PatNeshek.com.

Users far beyond the Metrodome were creating and posting their own YouTube videos, which the sidearming righty encouraged and catalogued. He implored his fans to pull an all-nighter going into the final day of voting, and although he finished third, his vote total was remarkable and in no small part due to this viral campaigning. It is likely to be a recipe for future Final Vote candidates -- or at least it certainly should be as online voters relate more and more to this way of life.

Neshek was not exactly thinking about this race with less than two hours remaining, though. He was on the mound at Yankee Stadium, trying to keep the score tied at 5 in the eighth inning. And then came Hideki Matsui's titanic two-run homer, and the Twins lost, 7-6.

Here is one thing that is absolutely certain: A ton of baseball fans know a lot more about Pat Neshek than they did before the Final Vote. And here's what makes it even more fun: He knows a lot more of you. Like "Spokesman Ethan" -- the creator of one of the homemade videos, who now, at long last, can stop submitting votes for Neshek and get some things done around the house.

Okajima's closest challenger was Bonderman, who he passed for the lead after the first day of balloting. They each had some creative marketing campaigns going on their behalf. There was that "Bondo '07" ad campaign for the Tigers' young right-hander, who has been practically unbeatable in the first half. Bonderman made the first loud statement by any Final Vote contestant with his eight scoreless innings against the Twins on Sunday night, improving to 9-1. But anyone who watched the Red Sox was almost constantly aware of Okajima's candidacy, and the Japanese lettering behind home plate told his fans back home to vote for him. Which they obviously did.

Red Sox Nation and a high-tech Japan constituency were too much for four others to overcome. And allowing just four earned runs in 41 innings of relief made any campaigning very justifiable; the guy has been nearly untouchable, with an 0.78 WHIP entering Thursday.

Young seemed to be constantly surrounded throughout the Final Vote by questions about why he needed this support in the first place. Even Zambrano, his closest challenger, repeatedly noted during the Final Vote that Young should have been selected last Sunday. Ultimately, it didn't matter much. Baseball fans spoke on his behalf.

Young, who had been on the 2006 NL Final Vote ballot that was won by Garciaparra, said he did not vote for himself. "Last year, I voted a little bit, but this year I didn't want to get wrapped up in it," he said. "I had a game to start last night, and the best way to help the San Diego Padres win our division is to take care of my starts, and I didn't want to get wrapped up in it."

Young is 8-3 and is tied with All-Star Brad Penny of the Dodgers for the Major League lead with a 2.00 ERA entering Thursday's action. He pitched seven scoreless innings in a no-decision on Wednesday. This week, fans at PETCO Park have watched a video in which Peavy and Hoffman told fans why they must vote for their teammate. And Padres fans did that constantly, using computers set up around the ballpark.

The Monster All-Star Final Vote program has seen more than 80 million votes cast since its inception in 2002, including a record 18.6 million last year when fans chose Pierzynski and Garciaparra. Previous winners of the Monster All-Star Final Vote include: Podsednik (AL, 2005); Oswalt (NL, 2005); Matsui (AL, 2004); Bobby Abreu (NL, 2004); Varitek (AL, 2003); Geoff Jenkins (NL, 2003); Damon (AL, 2002); and Andruw Jones (NL, 2002).

It has been an incredible record run of online All-Star balloting at MLB.com for fans everywhere, and now you can rest up a bit but prepare for another big opportunity. Once again, fans will have the chance to participate in the official voting for the Ted Williams Most Valuable Player presented by Chevrolet at the 78th All-Star Game via the Monster 2007 All-Star Game MVP Vote on MLB.com.

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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