SAN FRANCISCO -- Leading up to the first pitch of the 78th Major League All Star Game last night at AT&T; Park, the focus was on two of the greatest all-around outfielders in the sport's history: Barry Bonds and Willie Mays.
Once the dust settled, though, it was another star outfielder who stole the show and provided what has become a predictable result: one more win for the American League.
Buoyed by the first inside-the-park homer in All-Star Game history -- a rattling smash to right by Seattle Mariners star and game Most Valuable Player Ichiro Suzuki -- the AL won, 5-4, before an announced crowd of 43,965 to secure World Series home-field advantage for the fifth consecutive year.
The AL's dominance is now teetering on historic.
It is unbeaten in the past 11 All-Star Games and has won five straight since the infamous 11-inning tie in 2002. The AL's last loss was in 1996 at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. The AL's run is now tied for the longest All-Star Game unbeaten streak in history, matching the National League's 11-win stretch from 1972 to 1982.
Yet, it was anything but easy.
"I don't think we dominated tonight. We go down to the ninth inning and if they get a base hit, the National League wins the game," said AL manager Jim Leyland of the Detroit Tigers. "I really don't believe in that dominant thing. [The streak] has happened in the All-Star Game. It's a totally different ballgame to be honest with you."
The tension swelled in the ninth, when the AL held a three-run lead with two outs. The Washington Nationals' Dmitri Young hit a grounder between first and second that a running Brian Roberts got a glove on but couldn't control. It was ruled a single and seemed innocent enough until Chicago Cubs outfielder Alfonso Soriano followed with a two-run homer against Seattle closer J.J. Putz, closing the lead to 5-4.
"It's not like it was right at me, but it's certainly a play you would have liked to have made," said Roberts, the Orioles second baseman who entered as a defensive replacement in the third inning, went 0-for-2 and scored a run. "I didn't want to be the goat at the end there."
That title nearly went to Los Angeles Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez. After Putz walked the next batter, Rodriguez entered after throwing just five warm-up pitches. He walked two more to load the bases before getting the Philadelphia Phillies' Aaron Rowand to fly out.
"It was no pressure, it was just adrenaline," Rodriguez said. "I didn't get scared or nervous out there. Sometimes, I just get too anxious. And that's how I get in trouble."
He escaped, and so did the AL, but not before they were frightened by their counterparts.
"We had the right guy up there in the ninth, Rowand's a clutch guy. He had a nice swing and put it in the air," said NL manager Tony La Russa of the St. Louis Cardinals. "What you do is go about it the right way and if the other team beats you, you've got to tip your caps and we tip our caps."
The AL took a lead it never relinquished in the fifth on a slicing piece of history courtesy of Suzuki. Roberts drew a leadoff walk against San Diego Padres right-hander Chris Young. With one out and the AL trailing 1-0, Suzuki crushed a pitch to right field that hit an inset in the outfield wall and bounced away from Ken Griffey Jr. While the Cincinnati Reds star tracked down the ball, Roberts and the speedy Suzuki raced around the bases.
The throw home was too late, giving Suzuki a stand-up, inside-the-park homer, the first in his big league career. It was his third hit on a great day for Suzuki, who reportedly is about to sign a five-year extension with the Mariners.
"It's one that I will never forget," Suzuki said through an interpreter. "The past six years I have never had an All-Star Game where I gave it my all or was able to give it my all. So I am very happy."
The American League scored all of its runs on homers -- the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' Carl Crawford had a bases-empty shot in the sixth and the Cleveland Indians' Victor Martinez added a pinch-hit two-run homer in the eighth.
Before Soriano's ninth inning shot, both NL runs were driven in by Griffey, on a single and a sacrifice fly. Early on, it looked as if Griffey was positioning himself for a run at the game MVP. He made a perfect throw in the fourth to cut down the Yankees' Alex Rodriguez at home plate.
The New York Mets' Jose Reyes, who singled and stole second to set up the first run, also was a contender, with two singles and a double in his first three at-bats.
But it's the All-Star Game. And these days that means the American League wins, gets the MVP and continues its World Series' home-field advantage.
In the end, the outcome blurred the pre-game feel-good story of hometown hero and San Francisco Giants left fielder Bonds, who was greeted boisterously by the crowd during pre-game introductions and each time he came to the plate. He flied out twice and played just three innings, but the game meant more for him than a box score line.
"I'm at a loss for words with it. There are too many emotions to deal with," Bonds said. "This is my family; a lot of them I grew up with throughout my years. All you can say is thank you."
The only ovation that matched Bonds' was one for his godfather, legendary Giants center fielder Mays.
Mays, 76, threw the first pitch from center field, then signed the ball for Reyes before being led into a 1958 Cadillac convertible by Bonds.
"I don't think I can understand it until I see it on film," Mays said. "It's a great honor because of so many great All-Stars in our game and I think the Giants really went all out."