NL trying to end Midsummer drought

NL trying to end Midsummer drought

NEW YORK -- The premise is simple: Two teams, equally skilled, should have an equal chance to win a game. Flip a coin enough times, and it's bound to come up heads.

But the notion that the American League and the National League are indeed equal has taken a hit in recent years. Of the past four World Series champions, only the Cardinals have won for the NL. And the three runners-up have combined for one win.

In Interleague Play, AL teams have compiled a .571 winning percentage over the last four seasons. All of which makes this next statistical improbability seem almost plausible: The National League has not won an All-Star Game since 1996.

Back then, it took homers from Mike Piazza and Ken Caminiti to achieve the feat, giving the NL its third consecutive All-Star Game victory. And, apparently, its last. Given that the game determines home-field advantage in the World Series, that's no small detail. For National Leaguers around the game, it's a legitimate concern.

"We are tasting the sting of defeat," this year's NL manager, Clint Hurdle, said. "We are going to have fun and respect everything that comes in terms of celebration, but once that game starts, we are focused to win that ballgame."

Hurdle has reason to be confident. His team boasts Astros first baseman Lance Berkman and Phillies second baseman Chase Utley, perhaps the two most productive hitters in the game. It boasts the reigning Rookie of the Year, Ryan Braun, and a leading candidate for this year's award, Geovany Soto. It boasts pitchers with a combined 2.90 ERA.

Not that the AL can't stack up -- it can. But the NL certainly won't be outmatched.

"I like the National League squad," last year's manager, Tony La Russa, said. "I think they have as good a chance to win as the American League. I don't think they should be decided underdogs. I think it's a contest, and that's why they play the game."

This year's NL team is built upon power, not speed. Aside from Berkman and Utley, Hurdle's starting lineup features Hanley Ramirez, who has hit 23 home runs this season, and Braun, who matched that total Friday night. Of the nine All-Stars who entered the break with at least 20 home runs, six of them represent the National League.

Waiting on the bench will be Albert Pujols, Dan Uggla and David Wright, among others. And on the mound will be some combination of Dan Haren, Tim Lincecum, Edinson Volquez and Brandon Webb. All have shined this year. That's why they're All-Stars.

Then there's Hurdle, who is new to all this. He won't bring any managerial tricks to the table, other than a certain motivation to end this streak once and for all.

"Many have gone before me and have not won," Hurdle said, "so I look at this as a great opportunity for us to change the direction of the way the momentum has gone."

The National League's inability to bust the streak directly affected Hurdle last season, when his Rockies lost home-field advantage for the World Series and, in turn, lost all their momentum to the Red Sox. Whichever team represents the NL in this year's Series would like to avoid a similar fate. These All-Stars have the means to make it happen.

Should they succeed, they might just restore a bit of the sheen of the NL's reputation, and prove that the Senior Circuit is junior to no one. Padres manager Bud Black, a coach for the NL squad, called it "cyclical" -- sometimes the NL is on top, sometimes it's not. But if that's true, then this current cycle has stalled with the NL on the bottom.

More than anything, however, the league's 11-game winless streak seems the product of plain old bad luck. Nearly all the games have been close -- the NL has lost the last three games by a combined four runs, and even tied the AL back in 2002 -- but close hasn't helped this team defend its reputation.

Only winning will do that. And the players are convinced that the time is now.

"There is a pride," Wright said. "When you put that National League uniform on, you want to go out there and represent the National League. Especially lately, you have a lot of critics out there that say that the National League has been kind of the JV league the past few years. So you want to go out there and prove them wrong."

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