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Nightengale: Harper Deserves All-Star Nod Despite Tough Season

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Washington's Bryce Harper. Photo: AP

By Bob Nightengale |

The All-Star Game doesn’t really count for anything anymore.

The experiment of playing for home-field advantage in the World Series is gone.

The idea of league pride disappeared with daily interleague play, along with the constant shuffling of players switching teams and leagues.

Gone are the days when Bob Gibson and Nolan Ryan refused to talk to hitters in their own All-Star clubhouse for fear they might get to like them and not drill them with a pitch when necessary.

Still, with so much tradition seeping out of the game, we still love the Midsummer Classic, although considering that we’ll be so far beyond the season’s halfway mark by July 17, we should change the nickname to the 5/8th Classic.

It looks like again this will be our only chance on a national stage to see Mike Trout, now seven full seasons into his major league career with seven All-Star nods to match.

This might be the last time seeing local favorites Bryce Harper and Manny Machado representing the Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles at the All-Star Game. Who knows, with the way trade talks with the Los Angeles Dodgers and others are starting to heat up for Machado, he might not even be an Oriole by next week.

There will be those who argue that Harper doesn’t deserve to be an All-Star for the sixth time, citing his .218 batting average and whopping 91 strikeouts. Yet he still has 21 homers and 50 RBI.

Besides, let’s remind everyone again, it is only an exhibition game. It’s for sheer enjoyment. The game will be played in his ballpark. And it might be his last time in the spotlight for the Nats considering their enduring first-half struggles.

Harper, who plans to participate in the Home Run Derby, has no reason to apologize for playing in an exhibition game in his hometown.

Really, if we had our druthers, the All-Star Game should be expanded by one honorary spot for each team. A year ago in Miami, Ichiro Suzuki should have been in the All-Star Game. This year, Albert Pujols of the Los Angeles Angels and Adrian Beltre of the Texas Rangers would be ideal. They’re the most recent members of the 3,000-hit club, they’re headed to Cooperstown, and who wouldn’t want to see them take their hacks in the All-Star Game?

Maybe seeing Pujols at the All-Star Game for the first time since departing St. Louis would ease the pain of being cheated out of a Max Scherzer-Justin Verlander matchup. The two former Detroit Tigers teammates and future Hall of Fame classmates looked as if they were all lined up to start against each other. It changed when the Houston Astros juggled their rotation with Verlander now starting next Sunday, the last day before the break, keeping him from pitching in the game.

Well, at least we’ll be able watch the genius of Scherzer (11-5, 2.33 ERA, league-leading 177 strikeouts). He’s the first person in baseball history to receive a $210 million contract, and be grossly underpaid.

The game, again, will be filled with feel-good and comeback stories that captivate our attention.

Only in Hollywood could anyone imagine that Matt Kemp would be returning to his first All-Star Game in six years, after he was the longest of shots to make the Dodgers’ opening-day roster, let alone be their first-half MVP.

No All-Star shares Miles Mikolas’ itinerary. He was optioned nine times, traded twice, released once and spent the last three years in Japan before signing a two-year,
$15.5 million deal with the Cardinals.

Who would ever have believed that Mikolas (9-3 record and 2.63 ERA) would be the pitcher coming from Japan to be in his first All-Star Game, and not Shohei Ohtani?

Still, even though we would have loved to see Ohtani pitch, hit and participate in the Home Run Derby, we’ll get to see Milwaukee Brewers reliever Josh Hader strike out every batter he faces. We’ll enjoy New York Mets ace Jacob deGrom’s reaction watching his teammates finally score runs for him.

And in a game that only continues to skew younger, a pair of 21-year-old second basemen will demand our attention. Atlanta Braves star Ozzie Albies powered his way here with a startlingly potent first half.

Meanwhile, Gleyber Torres didn’t make his major league debut until April 22. Talk about instant respect: His 15 homers and .905 on-base plus slugging (OPS) inspired his AL peers to vote him onto the roster.

There, of course, will be the debate who was most robbed. Was it Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Blake Snell, Dodgers infielder Max Muncy, Brewers first baseman Jesus Aguilar, Mariners starter James Paxton, Mariners shortstop Jean Segura or Astros starter Charlie Morton? Save your breath. There are always plenty of injuries and  replacements. They should all be All-Stars by game time.

The first All-Star Game in our nation’s capital since 1969 might not provide the same indelible memories as the last time at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium. It was a time when 17 future Hall of Famers adorned the field, with Willie McCovey homering twice for the National League in the victory and Washington Senators slugger Frank Howard delighting the hometown crowd with a homer.

Considering baseball’s putrid offensive numbers these days, just seeing three consecutive hits might be our spine-tingling moment.

Times have changed. The All-Star Game doesn’t have nearly the same significance, but for all of the players and fans who are there, it’s still a thrill that will never be forgotten.

And that will never change.

This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter and Facebook.

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