The tail end of the Major League Baseball All-Star Break can be a sports fan's worst nightmare. It's the annual mid-July sports wasteland, a barren desert bereft of competition in MLB, the NFL, NBA and NHL, while golf fans await the looming British Open (aka The Open Championship).
But ... this year, fans will have something to quench their sports thirst. No, it's not Gatorade. It's even better. On Wednesday, July 11, the Double-A Eastern League All-Star Game will take place in Norwich, Conn., showcasing some of baseball's best young talent.
This year marks the fifth time the Northern Division will take on the Southern Division in the Eastern League ASG. In 2003, Minor League Baseball decided to move away from one All-Star Game for all three Double-A Leagues (Eastern, Southern and Texas). Now, each league stages its own Midsummer Classic.
Since the league-by-league approach has re-emerged, the Eastern League All-Star Game in particular has proven to be an exciting event. Besides showcasing future Major Leaguers such as Jonathan Paplebon and Hanley Ramirez, the games always seem to be intense. The series between the Northern and Southern squads is knotted at two apiece, and each of the past four contests has been decided by three runs or less.
This year should be no different.
The festivities begin at 11 a.m. ET on Wednesday with an All-Star Game Luncheon at the Mystic Aquarium, where players will be able to have some fun photo ops with the animals. Events then shift to Thomas J. Dodd Memorial Stadium, where a large fan fest will be held outside the balllpark. Gates open at 2:45 p.m., when batting practice begins. After the players are finished taking their hacks, an on-field autograph session will commence at 5 p.m.
Then things start to heat up, with the Home Run Derby scheduled to start at 6 p.m.
Participants were announced late Sunday and eight sluggers, four from each division, will swing for the fences. Representing the Northern club will be Sergio Santos (New Hampshire, 15 HRs), Caleb Stewart (Binghamton, 13), hometown favorite John Bowker (Connecticut, 13) and Brett Harper (Binghamton, 13). Hitting for the Southern squad are Michael Costanzo (Reading, 17), Oscar Salazar (Bowie, 14), Neil Walker (Altoona, 12) and Greg Jacobs (Reading, 14). Costanzo enters the contest as the early favorite with his league-leading 17 long balls.
The Derby will lead straight into the game itself, with first pitch slated for 7:35 p.m.
Each team's roster has 24 spots consisting of 10 pitchers, seven infielders, five outfielders and two catchers. All 12 teams in the league will be represented by at least three players, with Akron sending the most at six, followed by the hometown Defenders with five.
Both teams are loaded with talent. Eight of the players heading to Norwich are ranked among their organization's top six prospects.
Headlining the Northern Division team is New Hampshire catcher Robinzon Diaz, who also played in the XM Satellite Futures Game on July 8 in San Francisco. Diaz started for the World Team and ranks seventh in the EL with a .326 batting average. He will be joined behind the plate by Connecticut's Steve Holm, who sports a .474 slugging percentage with 23 RBIs and almost as many walks (21) as strikeouts (22).
Holm and Diaz will be handling a stellar pitching staff. Trenton's 1-2 punch of Alan Horne and Jeffrey Marquez are a big reason why the Thunder rank first in pitching in the EL. Horne is 9-3 and is second in the league in ERA (2.26) and strikeouts (113), while Marquez is 9-5 with a 3.18 ERA. Joining the duo will be Connecticut's Brian Anderson, who leads the league with 19 saves, and teammates Geno Espineli and Osiris Matos. New Britain's Timothy Lahey and Jose Mijares, Binghamton's Kevin Mulvey, New Hampshire's Tracy Thorpe and Portland's Charlie Zink, who ranks fifth in the league with a 2.77 ERA, round out the staff.
Binghamton cornered half the Northern squad infield, with first baseman Brett Harper, and his impressive .425 on-base percentage, and third baseman Mark Kiger. Joining them on the dirt will be second baseman Eugenio Velez (.346) from Connecticut and Luke Hughes of New Britain. On the left side, Portland's Jed Lowrie and his 39 extra-base hits will split time at short with New Hampshire's Sergio Santos and his 15 home runs. New Hampshire third baseman Rob Cosby was also selected to the team.
The Northern outfield showcases a variety of teams, with John Bowker of Connecticut, Matt Carson of Trenton, Jeff Corsaletti of Portland, Aaron Mathews of New Hampshire and Caleb Stewart of Binghamton. Bowker is second in the league with 99 hits and Mathews ranks second with a .342 batting average.
The Southern Division All-Stars are unlikely to be fazed by that array of talent, as they have some potent weapons of their own. Reading's Jason Hill and Altoona's Brian Peterson will anchor the team behind the plate. Hill is batting .303 with 32 extra-base hits, and Peterson has 43 hits on the season.
With a league-leading 10 wins, Erie starter Dallas Trahern headlines the Southern mound staff. He is joined by Altoona closer Matt Peterson, who ranks second in the EL in saves with 18. Adding to the excitement will be right-hander Radhames Liz of Bowie, who has fanned 101 batters, welcomed the month of June by no-hitting Harrisburg and nearly duplicated the feat 12 days later. The Southern Division staff also features Brett Campbell and Dan Kolb of Harrisburg, Matthew Maloney and Chris Key of Reading, Randy Newsom and Reid Santos of Akron, and Dave Davidson of Altoona.
The Southern infield delivers an awful lot of pop along with its defense. Akron shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera will bring his .328 batting average (sixth in the EL), 98 hits (third), 21 stolen bases (tied for third) and 69 runs scored (first) to Norwich. He will be joined by Reading third baseman Michael Costanzo and his league-leading 17 home runs. Costanzo's teammate, Jesus Merchan, should start at second base with his blistering .353 batting average, tops in the EL. Also around the infield will be Akron's Jordan Brown, Harrisburg's Josh Whitesell, Altoona's Steven Pearce and Neil Walker and Bowie's Oscar Salazar.
One incongruity for the Southern squad is that its outfield is not quite as potent offensively as its infield, but it still has plenty to offer. Reading's Greg Jacobs ranks third in the league in batting with a .330 average and is tied for second with 57 RBIs. Brian Barton of Akron brings a .419 on-base percentage, while Val Majewski of Bowie and Jackson Melian of Erie complete the lineup.
The Aeros staff, which guided Akron to the Southern Division Championship last year and the second-best record in the league in the first half this season, will manage the Southern team. The host Connecticut Defenders' coaches will handle the reins for the Northern squad.