Braun helps spark NL in All-Star rout
RBI double starts five-run first inning, adds triple in third at-bat
KANSAS CITY -- Ryan Braun has learned to enjoy every moment of All-Star Week, but the game itself topped the agenda on Tuesday. The outcome sets home-field advantage in the World Series, and since Braun's Brewers played to within two games of that ultimate stage last season, he felt an obligation to not simply play, but play to win.And Braun eventually did his part, hitting an RBI double off Justin Verlander that put the National League on the board in a five-run first inning, and adding a triple in a three-run fourth as the NL raced to an 8-0 win over its AL counterpart. It was the first All-Star Game shutout since 1996 -- a proper send-off for NL manager Tony La Russa and retiring Braves star Chipper Jones.
"It's big for all of us," Braun said. "We take a lot of pride in winning this game, our third consecutive win. We believe we have a lot of young talent on this side, and you recognize the meaning and significance of this game. We're absolutely excited we won."Braun, who was 0-for-7 in his three previous All-Star starts, became the first Brewer with two hits in a Midsummer Classic. He was robbed of a hit in the second inning by Blue Jays right fielder Jose Bautista, who made a sliding catch to rob Braun of a single. Had that hit fallen, Braun's triple would have left him a home run shy of the cycle, and he might have had a shot at the first All-Star cycle. "They told me they would have let me," Braun said. Even Brewers manager Ron Roenicke appeared on the field. He coached first base in the second inning and made the game's final pitching change in the ninth -- a move that will go into the books as the last of the thousands of pitching changes in La Russa's long career. "When he started, some manager did it for him," Roenicke said. "That was fun." Both men were busy during their two-day stint in Kansas City, but in the hours before show time, Braun did his best to slow the whirlwind and enjoy his fifth All-Star experience. He made a point to meet Nationals phenom Bryce Harper, told him how impressed he was by the way Harper, at 19, is handling the spotlight. Braun added his own jersey and a bat to a mountain of memorabilia that players sign and then donate to charity or tote home as mementos. He reunited with Jones, who six years ago during a Double-A rehab assignment convinced Braun to switch to a 35-inch bat -- a model he still uses today. And he dressed at a locker next to Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp, a friend and fellow Los Angelino whom Braun thanked for unwavering support over the last seven months. Another friend, the Reds' Joey Votto, was on the other side. Braun was asked whether he'd requested a locker next to his good buddies. "No," Braun said between chuckles, "I never choose who I get naked next to in the locker room." It was one of many laughs for Braun, who has figured all along that the best way to step out of the shadow cast during his dark winter was to perform at the same high level under the bright ballpark lights. He succeeded at that during the first half, batting .306 with 24 home runs and 60 RBIs. On Tuesday night, Braun was in the All-Star Game starting lineup because Kemp was out, still recovering from a hamstring strain that has sidelined him for most of the past two months. Those two are tied by more than their shared hometown. Kemp ran second to Braun in last year's tightly-contested National League MVP race, and had a wide opening to criticize that result after news leaked in December that Braun had tested positive for a banned substance. Instead, throughout Braun's appeal that stretched all the way into Spring Training, Kemp was supportive. Braun, of course, won his appeal, began the season in the Brewers' lineup and made it back to the All-Star Game. "[Kemp's] opinion obviously is very relevant because we've been closely tied because of the MVP race last year, and I think both of us are at similar stages in our careers, we've both had success playing this game," Braun said. "The fact that he's supported me through everything is very meaningful. When you deal with adversity, you see who your true friends are." As he spoke, Braun was rubbing a sore right hand. He said he'd signed 1,000 items -- "At least," Braun said -- in a room stacked with memorabilia. An item or two will wind up at Braun's home in Malibu, where he has a growing collection that marks his achievements in the game. Someday, Braun will be able to appreciate those mementos. On this day, he couldn't feel his thumb. "It's a rite of passage, I guess," he said. "It's one of the rituals."