Offense Carries U.S. To Victory

PITTSBURGH’"Since Alfonso Soriano homered twice in the inaugural 1999 contest, the All-Star Futures Game has served as more of a showcase for pitchers than hitters.

But a potent U.S. lineup wasn’t to be denied at PNC Park on Sunday. Led by several of the game’s top offensive prospects, the United States established a new Futures Game record for runs while outslugging the World for an 8-5 victory at PNC Park. The United States now has won five times in eight games.

“That American team has some bats, now,” World first-base coach and Triple-A Charlotte manager Razor Shines said. “That’s some big power over there in that clubhouse. I’ve been telling people all year how Josh Fields has been carrying our team and he comes into a game like this as basically just one of the guys. They were awesome.”

Outfielder Billy Butler became the second straight Royals prospect to win the MVP award, following Justin Huber. Butler went 2-for-3, including a two-run homer in the bottom of the second that erased a 1-0 lead the World had taken in the top half. The blast traveled 394 to center field and came off a Jose Garcia (Marlins) curveball.

The United States never looked back, breaking the game open with five runs in the third. Davis Romero (Blue Jays) retired Pirates catcher Neil Walker on a groundout before running into the top of the U.S. lineup. Diamondbacks shortstop Stephen Drew singled and Angels second baseman Howie Kendrick walked before Royals third baseman Alex Gordon, Astros right fielder Hunter Pence and White Sox DH Josh Fields followed with consecutive RBI singles to make it 5-1.

Fields was erased on a cutoff play, but Rockies first baseman Joe Koshansky drilled a 396-foot homer to right field, chasing Romero. Butler and Tigers outfielder Cameron Maybin delivered consecutive singles off Carlos Carrasco (Phillies), who finally escaped by getting Walker on a popup.

Maybin, who can stake a claim to being the best overall prospect in the minors, had to settle for batting eighth for the United States. He went 2-for-3 and said he was just happy to crack the starting lineup.

“I haven’t hit eighth since my freshman year in high school,” Maybin said. “Dude, that tells you what kind of lineup we have when Butler hits seventh. That guy flat rakes, and then goes and drops that bomb. That definitely got us going. He hit a good pitch, 3-2 curveball, and put a good swing on it. That got everyone into it.”

The World pitching staff wasn’t as loaded as it was while not allowing an earned run in the previous two Futures Games. Its 2004 roster featured Felix Hernandez and Jeff Francis, while eight of the nine pitchers who appeared for the World last year are in the majors, most notably big league ERA leader Francisco Liriano.

But the outburst was impressive nonetheless. In the first seven Futures Games, the United States managed to score five runs in a game just once, in 2001.

Though the U.S. staff had more power arms than the World, it too had trouble keeping runs off the board. Homer Bailey (Reds) threw bullets during his one-inning stint, but surrendered the second-inning run when Padres catcher George Kottaras doubled on a 97 mph fastball and Dodgers shortstop Chin Lung Hu followed with another on 94 mph heater.

Kottaras also ignited a three-run rally in the fourth off Philip Hughes (Yankees), whose fastball sat at 93-95 mph. Diamondbacks outfielder Carlos Gonzalez singled with one out and scored on a double by Mariners DH Wladimir Balentien. Kottaras then planted a pitch 406 feet over the fence in left-center to cut the U.S. lead to 7-4.

Gordon got a run back for the United States with an RBI double off Edgar Martinez (Red Sox) in the bottom half before the World made another charge in the fifth. Eric Hurley (Rangers) got two outs but also put two runners on base via a single and a walk, and Balentien greeted Sean Smith (Indians) with an RBI double to make it 8-5. Smith followed by walking Nationals catcher Salomon Manriquez, setting the stage for some hometown heroics courtesy of Pirates righthander Josh Sharpless.

A 24th-round pick out of NCAA Division III Allegheny College in 2003, Sharpless has emerged as a legitimate relief prospect thanks to his slider. It proved too much for the World team, as he got Hu on a fly ball and then retired the side in order in the sixth.

“It was really a dream come true,” said Sharpless, a native of Freedom, Pa. “To come back to where I’m from, with a lot of friends and family in the stands, and get a big out was incredible. I knew I should have been nervous, but I think what really helped was I came into a tight situation and I didn’t have time to get nervous.”

During his pregame speech to his club, U.S. manager Gary Carter concluded his gameplan by saying, “Linny, you’re pitching the seventh and leading us to the promised land.” After Carter, who manages high Class A St. Lucie in the Mets system, tabbed Mets farmhand Matt Lindstrom as his closer, Sharpless said, “I’ve heard he can hit 100 mph, and I can believe it.”

Lindstrom topped Sharpless’ expectations. First, he blew away Giants first baseman Pablo Sandoval on three straight 99 mph fastballs. Then he delivered 100 and 101 mph fastballs to Braves third baseman Yunel Escobar before fanning him on a 78 mph offspeed pitch that seemed just cruel. Lindstrom completed the save by getting Gonzalez to fly out to left field on a 100 mph pitch.

The U.S. team mobbed Lindstrom in the dugout after the game, excited that he hit triple digits three times.

“To be in a stadium like this, in front of a crowd like this, with Team USA on my chest, I just had a lot of adrenaline going,” Lindstrom said. “I just told myself to relax and throw strikes. Of course, I couldn’t relax but I still was able to throw some good pitches.”

Yet in this Future Game, offense was the main story.

Contributing: Chris Kline, John Manuel.