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Fear not, K-Rod saves the day

K-Rod saves All-Star Game

SAN FRANCISCO -- No sweat, from where John Lackey was watching.

Pulses might have been pounding elsewhere, but Lackey knows Francisco Rodriguez and what the Angels starter calls his "fearlessness" on the mound.

"Nah, I wasn't worried," Lackey said on Tuesday night, having watched K-Rod walk another tightrope to victory, this time for the American League All-Stars, 5-4 conquerors of the Nationals yet again. "I've seen him do it too many times."

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Rodriguez never had done it in an All-Star Game, however, and that brought an element of novelty to the act.

When he retired the Phillies' Aaron Rowand on a fly ball to right for the final out, leaving the bases loaded, K-Rod finally could exhale.

"It was a great feeling -- my first save in an All-Star Game," Rodriguez said. "Hopefully, it's not the last one."

This save was far from stress-free, in spite of Lackey's cool confidence.

Summoned for one out by AL manager Jim Leyland after Mariners closer J.J. Putz got two before a National uprising featuring Alfonso Soriano's two-run homer, Rodriguez thought he had the Cubs' Derrek Lee struck out on a 3-2 checked swing.

But the call went Lee's way, Rodriguez was forced to go after Arizona's Orlando Hudson with two on. After Hudson walked on five pitches, three in the dirt, it was left to Rowand.

"Scary? Not at all -- I was going to go with my best," K-Rod said. "I was confident I could put pitches where I wanted them. I was trying to make him hit my pitch, which is what all closers do in that situation. [Catcher Jorge] Posada said, 'Let's go after him,' and that's what I did, two fastballs.

"The last one was a fastball in, and he tried to inside-out it to right field. With power pitchers like me, that's what they usually try to do."

As the ball settled in the glove of Toronto right fielder Alex Rios, K-Rod expressed the joy -- and relief -- felt by all AL contenders, who now know they'll have home-field advantage in the World Series.

"If we make the World Series," Rodriguez said of his AL West-leading Angels, "we'll have the first game at home -- and Games 6 and 7, too. We know from 2002 how important that is."

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Victories in Games 6 and 7 -- Lackey starting and winning the finale as a rookie -- made World Series champions of K-Rod and Co. at the expense of Barry Bonds and his Giants.

It was a quiet night for the Angels' other two All-Stars.

Hitless in three at-bats, Vladimir Guerrero left his thunder in the State Farm Home Run Derby, and Lackey did not appear in the game.

"Yeah, I'm a little disappointed," Lackey said. "I wanted to pitch. Maybe next time."

Guerrero's first at-bat once again was a confrontation with Dodgers right-hander Brad Penny. This time it was Penny, victim of Guerrero's monstrous homer in the second inning of the 2006 Midsummer Classic in Pittsburgh, who held the upper hand. He got ahead with two fastballs, then brought one in on the fists for a ground ball to third that shattered Guerrero's bat.

Guerrero also grounded out against the Phillies' Cole Hamels in the fourth inning and flied to right against the Brewers' Francisco Cordero in the sixth.

"I faced him a lot when he was in Montreal," Penny said. "I wanted to get ahead -- last year I didn't get a chance to. Once I got to 0-2, I wanted to run a fastball in, and that's what I did. He's a great hitter, a Hall of Fame player."

With Dan Haren and Josh Beckett each throwing two innings to start the game for the AL, there were opportunities for only five other pitchers among the 11 on Leyland's staff to make appearances.

When Leyland opted for Putz in the ninth inning with a 5-2 lead, it appeared that both Rodriguez and Lackey would be inactive, joining Bobby Jenks of the White Sox and Gil Meche of the Royals.

But Putz ran into trouble with two outs, Dmitri Young reaching on an infield single and Soriano sending a 3-1 fastball into the right-field seats. A walk to Hardy brought Leyland out, and in came Rodriguez in his second All-Star appearance.

"I had to get ready in a hurry," K-Rod said. "I didn't expect to pitch, and then I'm in the game."

Pressure always has brought out the best in the Venezuelan, who won his first Major League game at Yankee Stadium in the 2002 postseason and, at 24, became the youngest pitcher ever to reach 100 saves.

His 116 saves over the past 2 1/2 seasons lead the Majors, and he's converted 89 of his past 95 opportunities. His 12.2 strikeouts per nine innings is third best in MLB history.

It's been an eventful, head-spinning week for Lackey, from dueling legendary Roger Clemens on even terms in a great Saturday afternoon show at Yankee Stadium to making his first All-Star team -- even though he didn't get in the game.

It's the culmination of a run of excellence that began in 2002 with his World Series triumph. Returning to AT&T Park for the Midsummer Classic stirred sweet memories of that remarkable title run.

"It's the thing I think about every time I come here," Lackey said.

His 52 wins since 2004 rank third in the league, and his 3.38 ERA across 547 innings since 2005 also is third best in the AL, behind Johan Santana's 2.80 and Roy Halladay's 3.19.

Beyond the numbers, Lackey has emerged as a team leader in the manner of those who showed him the way when he was getting a feel for things.

The event gave him the opportunity to spend some time with good buddy Chris Young of the Padres, with whom he has worked out during winters in their native Texas. They also played together on a team of stars who toured Japan after the 2006 season.

"I got in an elevator when I got here," Lackey said, "and I see this really big guy, and I'm looking up ... and it's CY. Yeah, I love that guy. Great guy. I'm really happy he made it [in the Final Vote]."

"What's great about this is you have all these guys you compete against all year, and you call a three-day truce and hang out together."

The truce ends now. For Lackey, Rodriguez and Home Run Derby king Guerrero, it's back to the serious task of working your way to October, for World Serious business.

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

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{"content":["all-star_game" ] }
{"content":["all-star_game" ] }