Wednesday marked Triple-A ball's 25th version of the midsummer classic, and the first in Buffalo since the inaugural offering back in 1988. With 30 Triple-A teams - and 30 possible host towns for All-Star Week - it could very well be another 25 years until minor league ball's finest take center stage in Buffalo again.
That being said, the chance to play an All-Star Game on home turf - in front of an adoring home crowd - is rare. Bisons starting pitcher Matt Harvey, slugger Valentino Pascucci, and reliever Fernando Cabrera all had that special chance Wednesday.
They made the most of it.
"It was electric," Harvey said. "The whole experience of being here and being an All-Star, and having it in Buffalo just added on to the appreciation of being here. It was a lot of fun."
Throughout the game, the Herd's finest had fans on their feet with inspired efforts on the diamond. Although the efforts of the Buffalo trio were not enough to prevent a 3-0 International League loss to its Pacific Coast league counterparts, the final result was secondary. Based on crowd reaction, the fans wanted just one thing: good play from their local heroes.
Without a doubt, the heroes delivered.
Matt Harvey was the first Bison to take the field, and he drew worthy applause by making quick work of the PCL lineup in the top of the 2nd. Neither Adeiny Hechavarria, Tim Federowicz, nor Adam Eaton could solve Harvey - with each slugger producing a bouncing grounder that was handled by the IL infield for the easy out.
And that lineup was no cakewalk. All three PCL batters came into the game with an average over .300 - including Eaton, who leads the PCL with a .383 clip. No problem for Harvey, though, and the 1-2-3 inning stabilized the game after IL starter Tyler Cloyd (IronPigs) surrendered two runs in the 1st.
In the third, Harvey's output was not as clean - hitting leadoff man Jake Elmore with a pitch, and then advancing Elmore to second on a wild pitch. But the Bisons right-hander persevered, quickly ending the inning with two strikeouts and a pop-out. No harm, no foul.
That would be all for Harvey. With two innings of scoreless, hitless work, the outing was a definitive success.
"I felt pretty good," Harvey said. "It's been a week since I've been on the mound, so mechanics felt a little rusty, but it's kind of hard not to get up to pitch in front of 18,000, like they had tonight. Being in Buffalo, it was a really special night."
Immediately backing up Harvey's effort was Pascucci - Monday night's home run derby champion, and IL designated hitter for the evening. Pascucci saw his first opportunity in the bottom of the 2nd - coming to bat with his trademark 'Big Poppa' plate music blasting through the sound system, and working a 3-2 count.
On the payoff pitch, the Herd slugger brought the crowd to its feet with a hard-hit line drive to the left field wall that nearly cleared the fences. The ball bounced off the wall and Pascucci raced toward second, making it just in time on a sliding effort that impressed the Coca-Cola Field faithful.
Pascucci followed the double by doing what he has done well all season - walking. The big guy with the good eye drew a hat trick of walks in his remaining at-bats: a two-out walk in the 4th, a leadoff walk in the 7th after working a full count, and a one-out walk in the 9th on four pitches.
"I think I might have saw one, maybe two more strikes after my first at-bat," Pascucci said. "I came in not planning to walk three times, but that's just the way it worked out." The last BB even drew a chorus of boos from the crowd - clearly hoping for a pitch that Pascucci could knock out of the park.
"I heard the boos; I heard the Val-en-ti-no chants start going," Pascucci said. "It was fun; I was getting into it. I guess the fans were on my side. I got down to first and Sandberg (Ryne, IL assistant coach) was laughing about it as well. If I couldn't get a hit, I guess that was kind of fun as well."
But still, four times on-base in four at-bats? Not a bad outing for 'Scooch.
"It was a great reception from the fans," Pascucci said. "I was looking forward to it myself. I wish I would have got a few more feet up and hit that home run in my first at-bat."
And in a fitting follow-up to Pascucci's 7th-inning walk, St. Francis grad Jim Negrych (Chiefs) came through with a line-drive single to left field that sent Pascucci to second. The effort drew some of the loudest roars of the night, in an appropriate display of Buffalo affection.
"It's very humbling, to say the least," Negrych said. "The city's been behind me through thick and thin, and no matter what happens to my career, there's still people that follow me. Everyone's always been so supportive and open-arms to me whenever I come back here. I couldn't be more appreciative in the way they treat me."
The final Bison to see the field Wednesday was closer Fernando Cabrera, who took the mound in the top of the 9th with a runner on third and two outs - with the IL trailing 3-0. Although it wasn't quite the save opportunity that fans may have been hoping for, Cabrera put forth an energetic effort - striking out Josh Vitters (Cubs), the only batter he faced.
"Playing in front of your fans, you feel the emotion, the fans support you more," Cabrera said. "Because they know you. So it's a way better situation playing in front of your own fans, because of how much they care about the team and the city."
Cabrera's K finished off the near-flawless performance by the Buffalo crew, and the Coca-Cola Field faithful could not have asked for more.
It was a Buffalo night from the get-go, when 1988 Herd All-Star DH Benny DiStefano opened the festivities with an on-target first pitch to Pascucci. From there, the stage was set for a Bisons-flavored evening.
"The fans were into the game, every pitch," Pascucci said. "I wish we could have it packed like that (every game). It's awesome to play in; it's a great atmosphere to play in. It gets you ready to go. That's what you look for as a player."
Wednesday, in a midsummer night's sellout crowd at Coca-Cola Field, Buffalo was undoubtedly at its finest.