Image credit: Shane Bieber (Getty Images)
CLEVELAND — The National League, more than its junior counterpart, is overflowing with young stars. So much so that the NL trotted out the youngest starting lineup in All-Star Game history Tuesday night, with an average age of just under 26.
There was Javier Baez, 26, Cody Bellinger, 23, and Ronald Acuna Jr., 21. Freddie Freeman, 29, was the old man of group. And that’s to say nothing of reserves Pete Alonso (24), David Dahl (25) and Trevor Story (26), among many others.
The National League held the edge in young stars by a wide margin at Progressive Field in the 90th All-Star Game.
The American League’s young pitchers, though, proved up to the task.
Jose Berrios, Lucas Giolito and Shane Bieber combined for three scoreless innings and six strikeouts in the critical middle innings, and the American League rode a combined five-hitter to a 4-3 win over the National League in the All-Star Game on Tuesday night.
Bieber, the hometown favorite, struck out the side in a perfect sixth inning and was named Most Valuable Player, becoming the second Indians player to win All-Star Game MVP in his home stadium following Sandy Alomar Jr. in 1997.
“I didn’t really know what to think, I kind of lost all feeling in my body,” Bieber said of winning MVP. “Just to be able to do it in front of the home crowd in my first All-Star game is definitely not something I expected.”
Bieber led the trio of 20-something arms that helped secure the seventh straight All-Star Game win for the American League.
Berrios, 25, came on in third inning and struck out Acuna and Christian Yelich after the AL took its first lead. Giolito, 24, froze Cody Bellinger on a nasty changeup on his way to a hitless fifth inning. And Bieber, cheered on wildly by the home crowd chanting his name, struck out Willson Contreras, Ketel Marte and Acuna in order in an electrifying sixth inning.
“The way we did it, we did it pretty awesome,” Berrios said. “We had a lot of good times out there and the people see it.”
Beyond Bieber, the moment was particularly special for Giolito given the ups and downs of his path to this point. The White Sox righthander was considered one of the best high school pitchers ever as a prep and was drafted in the first round in 2012 even with an elbow injury that eventually required Tommy John surgery. By the start of 2015, he was the No. 1 pitching prospect in all of baseball.
But a slow decline began to accelerate that season, and, a year and a half later, he had fallen to No. 75 in the 2017 midseason update. In 2018, his first full season in the majors, he posted the highest ERA (6.13) of any qualified starter.
The trend line, definitively, was pointing down on Giolito’s career.
So for him to be standing on the mound in an All-Star Game a year later, the result of a complete restructuring of his delivery and mindset in the offseason, and striking out the presumptive MVP in Bellinger, was a feat that carried extra meaning to him and provided a signature moment of his restoration.
“It was a rewarding feeling because after last year (my) confidence was down,” Giolito said. “I knew that I had to change some things and some of them were drastic. But as the offseason progressed and I was feeling better and better and better, I knew I had the capability to have a special year.
“Going out there that inning and facing some of the best hitters further cements to me that this is where I belong. Obviously that outing, continue to build some confidence from there and just going to keep riding it out.”
Bieber made the night his own the following inning. The second-year big leaguer from UC Santa Barbara struck out Contreras looking on a 95 mph fastball, punched out Marte swinging over a curveball, and with the decibel level progressively rising and exhortations of “Bie-ber, Bie-ber” thundering from the partisan home crowd of 36,747, froze Acuna looking at an 85 mph slider to punctuate his night.
“I kind of stepped off the back of the mound after one of the pitches . . . I heard everything and really soaked it all in,” he said. “I can’t really thank the fans enough for creating that moment for me and making it really special.”
Justin Verlander set the tone for the AL with a perfect first inning capped by back-to-back strikeouts of Baez and Freeman. Masahiro Tanaka, Berrios, Giolito and Bieber took it from there to carry a shutout into the sixth inning.
Liam Hendriks surrendered a solo home run to Charlie Blackmon in the sixth and Brad Hand allowed a two-run single to Pete Alonso in the eighth to allow the NL to crawl back within a run at 4-3, but Aroldis Chapman shut the door in the ninth by striking out the side.
In all, AL pitchers combined for 16 strikeouts on the night.
“That was a blast,” Verlander said. “High adrenaline, high intensity.”
The youngsters on the National League pitching staff got in on the action, too. Mike Soroka, the youngest pitcher in the game at 21, delivered a perfect sixth inning. Sandy Alcantara, 23, chipped in with a scoreless eighth.
Michael Brantley hit an RBI double and Gary Sanchez went 1-for-2 with a double and a run scored to lead the AL offense. Joey Gallo provided what proved to be the decisive run with a solo homer in the bottom of the seventh inning off of Will Smith. Gallo’s homer, a 397-foot shot down the right field line, came on Smith’s first pitch after the Giants lefthander entered the game from the bullpen.