WEST SACRAMENTO, Calif.--For Gerald Laird, even playing in the Triple-A all-star game was a surprise.
After taking the winter off to heal an injury, Laird wasn't sure if he would be able to play this year. And the Oklahoma catcher did not make the Pacific Coast League all-star team until he was named as a replacement.
Still, he started and hit the first grand slam since the game's inception in 1988, leading the PCL to an 11-5 victory over the International League in front a sellout crowd of 14,414 at Raley Field. The IL had won the previous two games.
Laird earned PCL MVP honors, going 2-for-3 and tying the all-star game record with four RBIs. A second-round pick of the Athletics in 1998, Laird was traded to the Rangers as part of a seven-player deal in 2002.
Louisville third baseman Edwin Encarnacion, the top position player prospect in the Reds organization, was the IL MVP after going 1-for-2 with a solo homer.
In 2004, Laird was the Rangers' Opening Day starter and was the American League rookie of the month in April. But he tore a ligament in his left thumb in May and had surgery. When he returned two months later, he was still not 100 percent. So, he took the winter off and did not begin playing again until he reported to spring training in February.
By then, the Rangers had signed veteran Sandy Alomar Jr. as the backup catcher, so Laird's days in the majors were numbered. He has appeared in only one game with the Rangers this season.
"(The injury) was nerve-wracking, but I feel great now," said Laird, who was hitting .295-14-48 in 234 at-bats for the RedHawks this season. "It's one of those things where I know I have to play hard (to return to the majors). I know I can play (in the big leagues). This is just a bump in the road."
Laird's grand slam foreshadowed a PCL rout in a city known for its minor league passion. Since joining the league in 2000, the Sacramento River Cats have led the PCL in attendance every season, and the Athletics affiliate has won the last two PCL championships. They were atop the Pacific South this season with a 52-39 record at the all-star break. And River Cats outfielder Matt Watson, who was hitting .302-10-48 in 268 at-bats, has been one of the standouts.
Watson continued his tear in the all-star game, nailing an opposite-field, two-run homer to left-center with one out in the seventh for an 11-2 lead.
"It was awesome," said Watson, who went 2-for-3 with three RBIs. "It was great to be able to do it here."
The IL scored the final runs of the game on Chris Coste's sacrifice fly in the seventh and Jeff Liefer's two-run homer in the eighth. The IL managed just six hits, and Norfolk starter Jason Scobie allowed four hits and five earned runs in an inning.
"It was tough early," IL manager Marty Brown said. "But all in all I was pleased with the way we played. The guys kept scrapping."
Encarnacion was just one of several prospects who played in the game. Tucson first baseman Conor Jackson (Diamondbacks), Rochester righthander Travis Bowyer (Twins), Buffalo catcher Ryan Garko (Indians) and Durham shortstop B.J. Upton (Devil Rays) were among those who also played in the Futures Game in Detroit.
Jackson went 2-for-2 with an RBI, and Bowyer threw a perfect two-thirds of an inning. Garko and Upton struggled; the Indians catcher went 0-for-2 and Upton committed two errors.
But this night was more of a celebration than an intense game. And most left impressed with the host city, stadium and team.
"It was just a great effort by everybody," said PCL manager Tony DeFrancesco, the River Cats manager. "I couldn't be more proud to be part of this organization."
• IL president Randy Mobley and PCL president Branch Rickey confirmed that their leagues have been discussing the possibility of bringing back the Triple-A World Series, though in a one-game, winner-take-all format. The last version of the Triple-A World Series was played between the two leagues in Las Vegas from 1998-2000, with New Orleans, Vancouver and Indianapolis winning titles. But the event fell apart after three attempts, due to a lack of attendance and mixed feelings about players losing possible service time with September callups. If the event is brought back, it will be likely to a more central location--possibly Oklahoma City.
• A few years ago, Joe Thurston never thought he'd be near his hometown, playing in the Triple-A all-star game. Once a top prospect, Thurston had visions of starting for the Dodgers. As the seasons pass, it's looking less likely he will to fulfill the predicted promise. Still, he retains big league aspirations and has a positive attitude despite his lowered status. "It's just a great honor to be here," said Thurston, who was hitting .290-6-33 in 231 at-bats for Las Vegas. "It's special because of what this game means."
Thurston, 25, grew up in Vallejo, Calif., about 45 minutes from Sacramento. He and his cousin, C.C. Sabathia, played together. But where Sabathia has been a mainstay in the Indians rotation, Thurston hasn't been able to get out of the minors. After two seasons at junior college powerhouse Sacramento City College, Thurston was drafted in the fourth round in 1999. The infielder made his major league debut in 2002, but he has only played in 36 games with the Dodgers since then. This spring, he went to major league camp again. He made the most of his Dodgertown experience, working with former Dodgers great Maury Wills on bunting and baserunning.
But with the Dodgers signing Jeff Kent, Thurston knew he had little chance of making the team. So he's back in Vegas, hitting second in the lineup and playing second base. Recently, he began taking fly balls. Known for his speed, Thurston said he would be willing to play in the outfield to show the Dodgers his versatility.
"(Getting back to the big leagues) is something I can't control, but I know I can play this game," Thurston said. "I'm ready to play at the big league level. My fire in the gut is still burning."
• After nearly a week off, New Orleans outfielder Tyrell Godwin returned to action in the all-star game. The Zephyrs canceled their weekend series prior to the all-star game against Iowa in advance of Hurricane Dennis. Godwin said the hurricane did not have much of an effect on New Orleans, as the area had only some rain. "It kind of scared everybody, but it wasn't too bad," he said.
• Columbus first baseman/outfielder Mitch Jones won the home run derby, amassing 29 homers. The other five contestants combined for 20 homers, including Oklahoma shortstop Ian Kinsler's 11. Jones won $250 and a trip for two to Hawaii. Jones was hitting .311-21-61 in 344-at-bats. He had a .590 slugging percentage and .373 on base percentage heading into the al-star break.
The Portland Sea Dogs hosted the all-star game for the first time, and the home team did not disappoint. Sea Dogs shortstop Kenny Perez hit a two-run double in a four-run eighth inning as the North rallied for a 9-6 win over the South. New Britain first baseman Danny Matienzo took home the MVP award after going 3-for-3 with two runs.
Carolina right fielder Jeremy Hermida led the North past the South, 12-5 in Mobile. Hermida, who earned MVP honors, went 3-for-5 with a double, four RBIs and a pair of runs. Righthanders Dana Eveland (Huntsville) and Josh Johnson (Carolina) each threw a scoreless inning for the North.
The Frisco RoughRiders threw a Texas-size party at Dr. Pepper/Seven-Up Ballpark, with an announced crowd of 10,398 watching the West defeat the East, 5-0. The evening belonged to Midland outfielder Andre Ethier, who earned MVP honors by driving in the first run of the game and robbed Arkansas second baseman Alberto Callaspo (Angels) of a third-inning home run with a sensational catch at the left-field wall.
No hometown player had starred in the California/Carolina League all-star game since Kinston’s Billy Munoz hit a walkoff homer to give the CL a win in 2000. But Frederick outfielder Nick Markakis wowed Keys fans, winning the home run contest over High Desert outfielder Billy Butler and going 3-for-5 with two homers to win the game's MVP award.
FLORIDA STATE LEAGUE
With the best record in minor league baseball, Lakeland dominated the Florida State League all-star game, as the Tigers affiliate placed a league-record 10 players in the game, including seven starters. And as they had all season, they delivered, leading the West to a 6-4 victory over the East in Clearwater. Sarasota outfielder Chris Dickerson put the game away with a two-run home run in the sixth and earned MVP honors.
South Bend finished the first half with the best record in the Midwest League, and the Diamondbacks affiliate showed why in Peoria, as Silver Hawks players carried the East to a 4-2 victory over the West. Jerome Millons, acquired by the Diamondbacks from the Dodgers late last year, hit an RBI double in the fourth and earned MVP honors.
SOUTH ATLANTIC LEAGUE
The North defeated the South 7-5, as Charleston's Tim Battle was named the game's MVP. Battle went 2-for-3 while Hagerstown's Marcus Sanders, his Southern Division teammate, reached base four times and scored twice.