Is it the pitching? Is it the hitting? Or has somebody done something to the baseball?
The proof apparently is in the pitching. Nine of the National League's best held the big-swinging American League lineup to just seven hits last night on the way to a 6-0 victory before 62,670 at Veterans Stadium.
"I love the art of pitching," said NL starter John Smoltz, who pitched two innings to earn his first All-Star victory, "and we've got a lot of guys in our league who know how to pitch. But this is a tough situation. When you're facing a lot of guys for the first time, the pitcher usually has the advantage."
That didn't seem to be a problem when the roles were reversed. The National League took all the big swings. Los Angeles Dodgers star Mike Piazza launched a mammoth home run to left field in the second inning and added an RBI double in the third to earn Most Valuable Player honors. Houston Astros third baseman Ken Caminiti also cleared the first deck of bleachers with a bases-empty shot to right in the sixth and help secure the National League's third straight victory.
But the evening probably will be remembered more for its emotional swings. Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken, the most durable player in baseball history, was injured in a freak incident before the game, but still started and played into the seventh inning. St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Ozzie Smith, who will be retiring after this season, got a lengthy standing ovation from the sellout crowd that was reminiscent of Ripken's big night at Camden Yards last September.
And a hometown boy made good.
Piazza grew up outside Philadelphia and watched his first major-league game at Veterans Stadium. He has been back many times with the Dodgers, but never experienced anything like this. He homered off the upper deck facade in his first at-bat and doubled home a run his second time up to win an honor he could barely have imagined when he was the 1,390th player drafted in 1988.
He also got the honor of catching one of the ceremonial first pitches, from boyhood hero Mike Schmidt.
"I'm out of words to describe how I feel," Piazza said. "It started when I met Mike Schmidt, then I hit a home run and won the MVP. It's hard to believe. This day has become something special."
It was a perfect opportunity for the AL staff to dispel some popular notions about the poor state of the league's pitching, but the NL hitters jumped at the chance to reinforce them and scored in each of the first three innings.
Center fielder Lance Johnson, who replaced injured Tony Gwynn in the starting lineup, doubled to left-center and came around to score on consecutive groundouts by Barry Larkin and Barry Bonds. It was a typical low-key NL rally, but that was only the beginning.
Piazza muscled up on AL starter Charles Nagy in the second inning and hammered a ball off the upper-deck facade in left field -- a drive measured at 445 feet. Piazza, making his fourth straight All-Star appearance, also homered in last year's 3-2 victory at The Ballpark in Arlington.
This one figured to be a little more special. Piazza grew up in nearby Norristown, Pa., and watched his first major-league game at Veterans Stadium. He made the homecoming even more satisfying an inning later when he lined a double to the gap in right field to drive in another NL run.
"He really takes hitting to another level when he's swinging the bat like that," said NL manager Bobby Cox. "He's hitting .340. He's not just a home run and strikeout guy. This guy knows how to hit."
The ball carried well all night, at least when the NL was at bat. Caminiti launched a drive to right in the sixth inning that caromed off the lower facade of the second deck, 417 feet from home plate.
Meanwhile, the AL's big bombers were finding out that good pitching still beats good hitting. Kenny Lofton led off the game with a single to center and stole second base, but that was as far as he got against Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz, who retired the next three batters in order.
Boston Red Sox slugger Mo Vaughn opened the second inning with a double down the right-field line, but Smoltz settled down again and retired the next three batters -- including Ripken and major-league home run leader Brady Anderson.
So where were the legendary AL home run kings? Well, first baseman Frank Thomas was unable to start the game because of a sprained left foot, Milwaukee's Greg Vaughn was out with food poisoning and Albert Belle remained in a month-long slump. He struck out in his first three at-bats, going down in the sixth inning with a ferocious Reggie-like swing with two runners on base.
That performance earned him the dubious distinction of being the first American League All-Star to strike out three times in a nine-inning game since Mickey Mantle did it in 1956.
Anderson didn't make a big offensive statement either. He grounded out with a runner at second in the second inning and reached on an error by Caminiti in the fifth.
The AL only had a couple of threats, and each time Belle made key outs. Booed in pre-game introductions and again every time he came to the plate, Belle struck out swinging against Smoltz, Atlanta teammate Tom Glavine and Montreal's Pedro Martinez, the last time with runners on first and third in the sixth.
Belle came up again with two on in the eighth and hit a hard line drive to center field that Johnson caught on the run.
"Tonight we had the advantage because we made a lot of good pitches," Smoltz said, "but if we played against that lineup 20 times, we probably would come out 10-10."
Maybe, but the National League staff came into the game with a combined 2.75 ERA, more than a run lower than the American League staff. The offensive lineups -- both of which were missing key hitters -- were reasonably comparable, so the outcome figured to favor the better pitching team, and illustrate which is the better pitching league.
"I think when you look at the number of hits those guys have over there and the averages and the home run totals, this [the NL] probably is the pitching league," said Smith, the elder statesman of the National League squad. "Whether that's the reason we have been winning, I don't know. We've got some good offensive players, too."
All-Star shutouts (APPEARED IN THE CARROLL EDITION ONLY) 1940 National, 4-0 at St. Louis
1945 American, 12-0 at Boston
1960 National, 6-0 at Kansas City
1968 National, 1-0 at Houston
1987 National, 2-0 13 inn., at Oak.
1990 American, 2-0 at Chi. (NL)
1996 National, 6-0 at Philadelphia
Pub Date: 7/10/96