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NL hopes fast start can break AL hex

NL hopes for fast start vs. AL

ST. LOUIS -- If Roy Halladay makes it through the first inning unscathed on Tuesday night, he will have more than justified his selection as the American League's All-Star starter and his reputation as the Junior Circuit's best pitcher.

But, if Halladay does get through it, and if the AL can survive the early innings with a lead, they'll be in great shape. The National League's primary advantage comes in the first inning. The AL's big edge comes at the end of the game. Tuesday's game may come down to whether the homestanding NL can use its thunderous lineup to get a lead early and avoid having to rally against a fearsome AL bullpen.

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To contain the 1-2-3 hitters in the NL lineup for the 80th Major League Baseball All-Star Game -- 8 p.m. ET on ESPN -- will require a seriously potent showing on Halladay's part. It would be difficult to assemble a more fearsome threesome than leadoff man Hanley Ramirez, No. 2 hitter Chase Utley and No. 3 man Albert Pujols. They are three of the four or five best hitters on the planet. And they are a big reason why the National League has to be feeling good about its chances at its first All-Star win since 1996.

You can be sure the NL team is more than ready for that moment to arrive. It's been 11 losses and a tie in the last 12 years, despite some very close calls -- such as last year's extra-innings thriller.

"You can't put a finger on it," NL third baseman David Wright said. "They've obviously had good teams, I guess that's the first reason. They go out there and they find ways to win. I wish I had an intelligent or a good answer, but I really don't. Hopefully, that trend turns around this year. It has been a frustrating last four years, coming in and not being able to break that streak."

If the NL does have an advantage in this year's Classic, it's in that top half of the starting lineup. The top third is practically unmatchable, with No. 4 hitter Ryan Braun no slouch either. Fifth hitter Raul Ibanez is having a brilliant season, and Wright in the six hole is regularly a legitimate MVP candidate. The edge fades a bit elsewhere, though. Shane Victorino and Yadier Molina are both in as much for their defense as their offense, while the AL boasts serious danger in the seventh and eighth spots in the form of Michael Young, subbing for Evan Longoria, and Aaron Hill.

Both sides have a fine collection of starters to get through the early innings. Halladay and NL starter Tim Lincecum each quite likely rates as the top pitcher in his respective league. They can be followed by the hottest pitcher in each league, Danny Haren for the NL and Zack Greinke for the AL. The AL may go a bit deeper with top-level starters, with Felix Hernandez ready to go, and it has multi-inning protection in the form of Tim Wakefield.

As in many recent years, the AL has a major advantage at the end of the game. The NL's closers are a fine group, including Francisco Cordero, Francisco Rodriguez, Heath Bell and Ryan Franklin. But the back end of the American League bullpen is extremely daunting. Mariano Rivera, Jonathan Papelbon and Joe Nathan are to late-inning relief what Ramirez, Utley and Pujols are to swinging the bat. They may not be No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3, but they're all definitely in the top four or five.

And, it's worth noting, the AL has one other thing going for it: the famous Ichiro Suzuki speech. Not widely known for his English skills, it's become an open secret in recent years that the Mariners star gives a superb fire-up-the-troops address before every All-Star Game -- and it's never been followed by an AL defeat.

"He comes in and everybody gets quiet," said Carl Crawford. "When I first heard it, I didn't really know he knew English that good, so it surprised me. I think it just catches everybody by surprise. He just comes in and gets everybody going and says 'Let's go! Let's go! Let's go win the game!'

"Not in those words though."

Matthew Leach 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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