Top arms will guide NL to All-Star victory

Gonzalez: Top arms will guide NL to win

Top arms will guide NL to All-Star victory
We all know how impossible it is to predict a game, especially in baseball, and especially for an event as random and closely matched as the All-Star Game.

But if I'm choosing sides, more often than not I'm taking the team that bats last and pitches best.

For the 82nd version of the Midsummer Classic, that honor belongs to the National League. And contrary to what colleague Anthony Castrovince predicts, odds are in favor of the Senior Circuit prevailing at Phoenix's Chase Field on Tuesday.

I know the recent history; one that has the American League flat-out dominating this matchup since there were 26 teams and Roberto Alomar was a rookie. But this year, the NL has the arms to take the home-field advantage in the World Series and make it two All-Star Game victories in a row.

Just go through the list.

They may be hurt by the fact early Cy Young contender Cole Hamels and Giants No. 2 man Matt Cain are starting Sunday and thus can't pitch in the Midsummer Classic. But they have Roy Halladay. They have Cliff Lee. They have Clayton Kershaw. They have Tim Lincecum. They have Jair Jurrjens. And they have baseball's best first half closer -- Joel Hanrahan.

Curtis Granderson, Jose Bautista, Adrian Gonzalez, Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz give the AL one fierce-looking lineup.

But, seriously, can anybody hit these guys?

The 11 still-eligible pitchers to take the mound for the NL sport a combined 2.48 ERA, boast five Cy Young Awards and have made 16 previous trips to the All-Star Game. The 10 still-eligible pitchers on the AL, meanwhile, have combined for a 2.61 ERA, zero Cy Young Awards and six All-Star Game appearances.

The ERA gap may not be very big -- it hardly ever is with two rosters this supremely talented -- but look at whom the AL will be without.

They have the likes of Jered Weaver, Josh Beckett, Gio Gonzalez and David Price. But a couple of really good and deserving starters -- Felix Hernandez and James Shields -- can't pitch because of scheduling, and neither can baseball's most fascinating hurler of 2011 -- Justin Verlander.

Perhaps most importantly, Mr. Automatic won't be there, either.

Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer in baseball history, bowed out of the All-Star Game on Thursday -- with the Angels' Jordan Walden taking his place -- because of a sore right triceps.

So, if it wasn't evident before, it is now: The NL's pitching staff is deeper and more talented.

Even if it's rather slight -- and even if they got help from the schedule and a nagging injury -- it's a significant advantage when you consider that an average of nine pitchers per team have been used in the last five All-Star Games.

One decision could go a long way in improving their odds.

If NL skipper Bruce Bochy is really all about winning this game and possibly securing home-field advantage for his defending-champion Giants, he should make Lee and Kershaw his first two pitchers, in whatever order.

First-half numbers may say Jurrjens or Halladay are more deserving of the start, but Lee and Kershaw are devastating southpaws who have dominated opposing lefty hitters and would be especially effective against an AL lineup that leans heavily to the left.

Yes, designating an All-Star Game starter is usually based more or merit than strategy. But Bochy needs to use Lee and Kershaw early in order to maximize their effectiveness against the AL's six lefty-hitting sluggers, before manager Ron Washington goes to his bench.

As far as offense is concerned, Washington seems to have the upper hand in this matchup (especially now that early MVP candidate Jose Reyes was placed on the disabled list with a hamstring strain).

But in a do-or-die game, give me the home team with better pitching.

Even if recent trends are so overwhelmingly against them.

There's no doubt the AL has been the better league in this era, winning 12 of the 20 World Series championships since 1990, posting eight straight series wins over the NL in Interleague Play and going 18-4-1 in All-Star Games since 1988.

But these All-Star Games have always been about streaks. The AL took seven of eight from 1941-49, then the NL countered by winning six of seven from 1950-56 and posting a jaw-dropping 19-1 record from 1963-82. That led to the successful AL run that began 23 years ago; one that culminated with a 13-year winless drought the NL didn't snap until the 2010 Midsummer Classic in Anaheim.

Maybe that was the start of another Senior Circuit run.

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for Read his columns and his blog, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.