Several making case to start Classic
Haren, Lincecum show West is best in NL; Greinke AL favorite
ST. LOUIS -- Mark Buehrle has pitched in three All-Star Games. He was a member of the American League All-Star team in 2006, when his manager helmed the team because the White Sox were World Series champions. He has a chance on Tuesday to pitch as an All-Star in his hometown.
But for Buehrle, he's already earned the greatest All-Star honor, the biggest Midsummer Classic thrill, that he could possibly have. In 2005, Buehrle started against Chris Carpenter and the National League, and he rates the experience above just about anything.
"It's hard to top starting an All-Star Game," Buehrle said.
Certain moments stand out in a player's career, but few can top the honor of being the All-Star starter. Buehrle is one of two pitchers in this year's game who have had the experience, along with Danny Haren. This time around, though, only Haren is considered a serious contender for repeat honors. The D-backs right-hander greatly strengthened his case on Friday night with a brilliant performance, shutting out the Marlins. That one-upped his primary competition, Tim Lincecum of the Giants, who took a no-hit bid into the seventh, but finished with three runs allowed.
Not that Haren's looking at it that way. He sidestepped a question on the topic on Friday night.
"I don't know, and that's not for me to answer," Haren said. "I think Lincecum is well-deserving, being the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner. He's been dominant, leading the league in strikeouts, and he's fun to watch. Either way it goes, it's going to be a fun time."
Starting the All-Star Game is an honor in itself, but it's also been a precursor of other recognition in recent years. In four of the past five years, one of the two All-Star starters has won the Cy Young Award in his league. Eight All-Star starters in the past 10 years have won the Cy Young in the same year, and 15 in the past 23 years. In 2001, opposing starters Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens both won the Cy Young Award.
This time around, it looks like a two- or three-horse race in each league, with the choices to be announced on Monday in St. Louis. The 80th Major League All-Star Game is set for Tuesday night at 8 p.m. ET Busch Stadium. For the home NL squad, it's Lincecum and Haren very much in the mix and nobody else really a serious candidate. In the AL, Zack Greinke is the heavy favorite, followed by Roy Halladay, with Felix Hernandez a long shot.
Choosing the All-Star starters is often a complicated task, because it's not as simple as selecting the best starting pitcher from the first half of the year. Rest factors in as well. If a pitcher's last start of the first half falls on the weekend before the break, it's difficult to justify starting him two or three days later.
This year, however, all of the most qualified candidates are also more or less on turn to pitch. On the NL side, Haren has been the league's best pitcher, with a league-leading 2.01 ERA and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of better than 8:1. He's third in strikeouts and has nine wins to rank fourth in the league. That puts him a bit ahead of Lincecum, who is second in ERA at 2.33, second with 10 wins and first in strikeouts with 149.
Lincecum pitched Thursday, so he'd be on his fifth day. Haren pitched Friday night, so he'd be on three days' rest. Then again, it's only an inning or two on Tuesday. However, Lincecum also has a couple of other edges. He'd be the first current holder of the Cy Young to start an All-Star Game since Johnson in 2001.
Also, while Lincecum doesn't have the same kind of attention-grabbing backstory as Greinke, he is a star in a way that Haren is not. His slight build, unusual throwing motion and spectacular stuff have made him a household name. Lincecum also covets the opportunity to pitch, since an illness knocked him out of the 2008 game after he was named to the NL team.
"It would mean a lot, that the hard work paid off," Lincecum said. "If I do happen to start, it would make up for the fact that I didn't even make it to the field last year."
But don't count out Haren, who truly has had the better year -- especially when you account for his far more hitter-friendly home ballpark.
"I take pride in going out and throwing as many innings as I can, quality starts and giving my team a chance to win every time, and I've done that for the most part," Haren said. "I feel real good. I've made 18 starts and I probably have 15 or 16 left. If I can do what I did in the first half, I'll be very happy at the end of the year."
Both Arizona and San Francisco have been represented recently, with Jason Schmidt starting as a member of the Giants in 2003 and Curt Schilling representing the D-backs in 2002. Though the Arizona franchise is relatively young, it has provided the NL starter four times already -- twice by Schilling and twice by Johnson.
Over on the AL side, it's a little clearer. Greinke, the best story in the AL this year as well as the league's best pitcher in the first half, started on Wednesday. By the time the All-Star Game rolls around, he'll actually be pitching on extra rest. Halladay, arguably the AL's best year-in, year-out pitcher, started Thursday. Hernandez, who has turned his considerable talent into truly great performance this year, pitched on Friday, so he'd be on three days' rest but could conceivably go.
"I hope to [start], but I think [Roy] Halladay has a pretty good argument, especially with the experience he has, and I'd be happy with either decision," Greinke said. "If it's someone besides us two, I think that'd be a little weird."
Greinke leads the AL in ERA, ranks second [to Tim Wakefield] in wins, third in strikeouts and first in complete games and shutouts, not to mention first in some of the more advanced pitcher-evaluation metrics. Add in the fact that his comeback is one of baseball's most compelling stories this year, and he's just about a slam dunk to start on Tuesday. Greinke would be the first Royals pitcher to start the All-Star Game since Bret Saberhagen in 1987.
Behind him, Halladay has established himself more over the years, while Hernandez is probably having a slightly better season overall than the Toronto ace. But while Halladay's star status could conceivably justify giving him the start, Hernandez would be hard to explain over Greinke. He's not having a better year than the KC righty, nor is he a bigger star.
"It would be an honor [to start], but I don't expect it to happen," Hernandez said. "It probably will be either Greinke or Halladay. But if they picked me, I would start with no problem."
Perhaps the best part of the whole deal is that no really serious candidate is being excluded because of when he pitches.
Eight starting pitchers from the two All-Star rosters are pitching over the weekend, but at most two of them have any kind of claim to deserving starting honors. The strongest case of that group belongs to Giants right-hander Matt Cain, but Cain faces one problem -- he's outshined by teammate Lincecum, who has more strikeouts, a slightly lower ERA and the same number of wins.
So that eight-man group -- Cain, Jason Marquis, Johan Santana, Ted Lilly, Josh Johnson, Justin Verlander, Buehrle and Josh Beckett -- can't really claim bum luck. Even if they were all on turn for Tuesday's game, it's unlikely any of them would have gotten the coveted call.
Instead, the assignments will go to two pitchers who are undisputedly among the best, if not the best, in their respective leagues. And they'll receive an honor they'll never forget.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Scott Merkin, Dick Kaegel, Jim Street, Chris Haft and Jesse Sanchez contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.