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Blalock proves he deserves place on AL team

CHICAGO - All those American League players who voted for Hank Blalock sure knew what they were doing.

Picked by his peers for the All-Star game, the 22-year-old Texas third baseman delivered Tuesday night. And when his drive off Eric Gagne sailed over the fence for a two-run, pinch-hit homer in the eighth inning, the NL's claim on home-field advantage in the World Series was gone, too.

In a game that featured more strategy and passion than any exhibition, the unlikely shot capped the biggest All-Star comeback since 1955 and gave the AL a 7-6 victory.

Even though Blalock and the Texas Rangers will be home by October, he knew what was at stake.

''Just because I'm not going to be in the World Series doesn't mean I'm going to turn it down a notch,'' he said.

Jason Giambi certainly appreciated it.

''I'm sure whoever reaches the World Series in a Game 7 or something like that will send him a 12-pack of something,'' the New York Yankees' slugger said.

So did Seattle reliever Shigetoshi Hasegawa, who was hit hard.

''I have already tipped him,'' he said.

Said Blalock: ''Oh, I don't expect any Christmas cards.''

Giambi and Home Run Derby champion Garret Anderson also connected, beginning the rally from a 5-1 deficit in the sixth inning. The AL posted its sixth straight victory, matching its longest winning streak.

The string does not include last summer's 7-7 tie in 11 innings. Both teams ran out of pitchers in that game at Milwaukee, and the result was such a debacle that it prompted baseball to add some juice to the All-Star game - under a two-year experiment, the league that wins it gets the home field in the Series.

This time, the outcome was in doubt until the final pitch, when Rafael Furcal flied out to the warning track. A home run would've made it 7-all, the same score that caused all the fuss last year.

''I'll take the blame for the NL not having the home-field advantage in the World Series,'' Gagne said. ''I'm sorry, but that's the way it works when you're a closer. Hopefully, it will be the Dodgers in there so I can redeem myself.''

The NL was supposed to have the home field this season under the old rotating system. It does make a difference - of the last eight Series to go to Game 7, the home team has won every one.

Now, for the first time since Detroit hosted the opener in 1934 and '35, the Series will start in the same league in consecutive years.

''We realize and recognize what was put on us and the stakes that were there,'' NL manager Dusty Baker said. ''I'm not crazy about the outcome, even though it was a great game to watch and a great game to manage.''

Anderson won the first Ted Williams MVP trophy. It was supposed to have been given out at last year's All-Star game in Milwaukee, but the tie changed that.

''It's been a good year, and this year's not over yet,'' he said.

Last October, Anderson got the big hit as the Angels beat San Francisco in Game 7 at Anaheim to win the championship.

Andruw Jones' two-run, pinch-hit double and solo homer gave the Nationals a 5-1 lead before Anderson hit a two-run homer in the sixth.

The NL still figured to be in a good shape with its vaunted lineup of closers Billy Wagner, Gagne and John Smoltz ready to finish it.

But Wagner gave up Giambi's solo shot in the seventh that made it 6-4 and Gagne, who has been successful on 39 straight save chances for Los Angeles, fell apart in the eighth.

Anderson doubled with one out for his third hit and Vernon Wells lined an RBI double with two outs. Blalock, batting for Troy Glaus, hit a long drive to right field - to the right of the big outfield sign that proclaimed the All-Star slogan, ''This Time It Counts.''

Blalock homered in his first All-Star at-bat. He's in his first full season, having been a bust as a heralded rookie last year.

Blalock is batting .323 with 14 home runs and 48 RBIs, stats that let him finish first in player voting for starting spots.

Brendan Donnelly got the win with a scoreless eighth, and Keith Foulke pitched the ninth for a save. The AL closed its overall deficit in the series to 40-32-2.

From the start, it was evident both teams were intent on winning.

For the first time in years, each side had signs and signals. And there was only one substitution for a position player before the fifth inning - last year, half the elected starters were out by the bottom of the fourth, with the likes of Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Manny Ramirez long gone.

''I think there were a lot of little subtleties,'' AL manager Mike Scioscia said.

Plus, there was an argument during a sequence that showed exactly how serious the teams were.

Todd Helton's two-run homer started the NL's five-run fifth, its biggest All-Star inning since 1969.

After Furcal singled as a pinch-hitter, Scioscia took out the right-handed Hasegawa and brought in lefty Eddie Guardado. Baker quickly countered, sending up the right-handed Jones to hit for lefty Jim Edmonds.

Jones hit a drive into the left-field corner for a two-run double. The speedy Furcal was awarded home, even though he started the play on first base, when a fan reached over the wall and gloved the ball.

Scioscia argued the call with plate umpire Tim McClelland, to no avail.

There was a scary moment when Edgar Martinez was beaned by Jason Schmidt. The 90-mph fastball cracked Martinez's helmet, but he was OK and stayed in.

Also, there were no security problems at U.S. Cellular Field, where a record crowd of 47,609 watched. Twice in the last two seasons, fans ran onto the field and attacked a coach and an umpire.