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Conine, NL make little go a long way, 3-2


ARLINGTON, Texas -- Jeff Conine was the only National League All-Star who didn't play in 1994, and when Felipe Alou picked Conine for the team again this year, the Montreal manager promised Conine: You will play.

Conine did play, and thanked Alou in his own special way, hitting a pinch-hit home run in the eighth inning last night to give the NL a 3-2 victory over the American League last night, at The Ballpark in Arlington. Conine was named the MVP.

The NL had three hits, and all were bases-empty homers, the others by Houston's Craig Biggio and the Los Angeles Dodgers' Mike Piazza. Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken had two hits in three at-bats before being removed for a pinch runner in the seventh inning. Gambrills native Denny Neagle pitched one shutout inning for the NL.

Before last night, Conine's claim to fame had been that he had the second-longest consecutive-games streak in baseball, behind Ripken; his streak ended earlier this year after 307 games. "For Rip to look back at me," he said earlier this year, "he'd need a telescope for a rearview mirror."

Conine led off the eighth inning against Oakland's Steve Ontiveros, with the score tied at 2. He had been in the on-deck circle when Fred McGriff struck out to end the seventh, and, he would say later, that allowed him to get rid of any butterflies he felt.

Between innings, he had asked San Francisco's Matt Williams about Ontiveros, who Conine had never faced before. Look for a breaking pitch, Williams told him. He'll throw you a breaking pitch in a key spot.

Conine took a slider for his first pitch, and looked for another. Bam.

He ripped a homer into the left-field stands. "You grow up your whole life and play sandlot ball and put yourself in that situation," he said, "to hit the game-winning home run, and that's what happened."

The NL has now won two straight, following last year's 10-inning victory in Pittsburgh.

"When you lose," Ripken said, "you have to say it's just an exhibition. When you win, you say you took it seriously.

"They've got bragging rights for a year. We'll try to get them back next year."

L The game had been, for the most part, dominated by pitchers.

The media had seized on the duel between the starting pitchers, Hideo Nomo and Randy Johnson, both experts in the art of the strikeout. For two days, players for both teams debated how the hitters would cope.

Minnesota's Kirby Puckett said he would stand out in right field and laugh at the NL left-handed hitters trying to hit Johnson, who is 6 feet 10 and left-handed. San Diego right fielder Tony Gwynn predicted that the AL would have trouble with Nomo's strange, whirling delivery.

They were both right: Johnson and Nomo dominated.

Philadelphia center fielder Lenny Dykstra walked to start the game, but Gwynn flied out weakly to left, and with Barry Bonds at the plate, Dykstra was cut down stealing on a 3-1 pitch. Johnson then struck out Bonds.

Nomo throws a fastball that is about 95 mph, and with the exact same motion, he throws a forkball that is about 10 mph slower. The AL hitters were left to guess whether Nomo was throwing one or the other, whether they should get their bats moving to catch up with his fastball or wait just a millisecond to time his split-fingered pitch.

They usually guessed wrong. Kenny Lofton struck out leading off. Cleveland teammate Carlos Baerga singled to right, but like Dykstra, he was thrown out stealing. Edgar Martinez then whiffed, flailing at a forkball, and the crowd of 50,920 -- the largest in the two-year history of The Ballpark at Arlington -- roared.

Johnson struck out two more in the second inning, McGriff and Ron Gant in succession, and Nomo struck out Albert Belle. Ripken had the best contact against either starter, lining out to right field to close out the second.

Piazza said before the game that the NL strategy was to concede the first two innings, and start getting serious after Johnson was relieved. But Johnson departed and the NL still couldn't get a hit.

Kansas City right-hander Kevin Appier replaced Johnson and retired six straight hitters, and Cleveland's Dennis Martinez retired the NL in order in the fifth.

Five innings, no hits. With so many fresh arms in the bullpen, a no-hitter wasn't out of the question.

The AL had taken a 2-0 lead by then, when Frank Thomas mashed a two-run homer off Cincinnati left-hander John Smiley, into the sky box level. Smiley had tried to throw a changeup past Thomas, but maybe this wasn't the best choice; on Monday, Thomas had been whacking off-speed, batting practice fastballs win the Home Run Derby.

"I wasn't trying to hit a home run," said Thomas. "I had a nice hack. I took a lot of batting practice yesterday and got in a good home run groove."

Martinez retired the first two NL hitters in the fifth, and the public address system in the press box crackled with the news. This was the farthest an All-Star team had ever gone without a hit. The previous record, the voice said, had been set in 1961, when the AL went 5 1/3 innings without a hit before Harmon Killebrew hit a homer.

Surprise. The very instant Killebrew's feat was mentioned, Biggio rammed a bases-empty homer into the left-field stands, cutting the AL's 2-0 lead in half.

Kenny Rogers relieved Martinez for the seventh, and with two outs, he threw a good pitch to Piazza. Down in the strike zone. No way anybody could hit the ball out -- nobody except for Piazza, who has exceptional opposite-field power.

With a swing that is unusual as Nomo's delivery, spinning so viciously that his feet come together in his follow-through, he smashed a low liner to right. Puckett went back until he could go back no more. Tie score.

As McGriff struck out, ending the inning, Conine waited in the on-deck circle. Conine went back to the dugout, to wait another inning for his first All-Star appearance.

His patience would be rewarded.

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