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All-Star Game no longer taken lightly

All-Star Game no longer taken lightly

NEW YORK -- The sense of urgency grew as the 79th All-Star Game lasted deeper into the night on Tuesday as American League manager Terry Francona carefully managed his roster with postseason precision, cautious of every move that he made and didn't make.

Exhibition game? For as long as he manages, Francona, who spends his days managing the Boston Red Sox when he is not sweating away the Midsummer Classic, will never look at the All-Star Game as a nine-inning exercise in frivolity.

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Not when the stakes are this high: The winner gets home-field advantage in the World Series, one that Francona's Red Sox used to their advantage last fall to derail a red-hot Colorado Rockies team.

"I think what's at stake makes it more important. You know, if there is nothing at stake besides the win or loss, it ends up being a little bit of an exhibition game," Francona said more than five hours after the start of Tuesday's game.

"I know I felt it. I mean, the responsibility."

Which is why Francona was able to especially savor the latest victory by the American League in this series, this a 4-3 victory in 15 innings that could have easily ended up a victory by the National League.

The American League is unbeaten in the last 12 All-Star Games, with victories in the last six games. There was the infamous tie in 2002 in Milwaukee, and Tuesday featured the longest Midsummer Classic in history as Michael Young knocked in the game-winning run with a fly ball in the bottom of the 15th inning.

Exhibition game? Not Tuesday, and not just because this was the last All-Star Game to be played at Yankee Stadium, either.

"Every single player was on the top step [of the dugout]. The energy, the enthusiasm, they knew where we were at," Francona said.

American League first baseman Justin Morneau, who started the 15th inning with a single and scored on Young's fly ball, never once had the feeling that Tuesday's game was what equates to a company softball game.

Playing on a team that's in the hunt for a playoff berth, Morneau realizes what a victory in July can possible do for a team in October.

"With us being a game and a half back [in the AL Central Division], it's a big win," Morneau said. "If we have a playoff push in the second half ... hopefully this game helps us again."

Clint Hurdle of the Colorado Rockies, who managed the NL team Tuesday, sounded the competitive horn during a press conference Monday, saying, "We play this game for the championship ring."

Commissioner Bud Selig's decision to award home-field advantage in the World Series to the league that wins the All-Star Game in 2003 was invoked to, among other reasons, spark renewed interest in a game that had seen player participation wane.

"I don't know how it was back then [in the old days], obviously. But to us now, it means something. It means home-field advantage for the World Series, and that's a big deal, especially if we make it to the postseason," Tampa Bay rookie Evan Longoria said.

Selig told reporters on Tuesday that having the results of the All-Star Game tied to the team that gets home-field advantage during the World Series has been a hit and that he has no intention of doing away with it.

"It's restored the intensity to the sport. You don't hear any players [complaining] anymore about coming to the game. In the late '90s, they did not want to come," Selig told reporters. "They didn't want to play. They were gone in the third or fourth inning. Now the game has intensity."

That was certainly evident on Tuesday as the two teams combined to use 23 pitches to cover a game that lasted four hours and 50 minutes. There were clutch hits that allowed the American League to overcome deficits of 2-0 and 3-2, plays at the plate and enough close calls to certainly tide over the sold-out crowd of 55,632 until October.

What does it all mean? Likely one of the best All-Star Games ever played. What will it mean in October? Who knows? But Chicago White Sox third baseman Joe Crede said that having the home-field advantage is, at the very least, a nice chip to have going into the second half of the season.

"The way a lot of American League teams have been playing at home, it would be such a huge advantage to have home-field advantage," Crede said. "The significance of the game is huge."

Corey Brock 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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