CHICAGO - Hank Blalock's team is going nowhere. Thanks to him, though, a lot of his AL teammates have a much better chance to go all the way.
In an All-Star game that clearly meant more than a mere exhibition, Blalock connected for a two-run, pinch-hit homer off Eric Gagne in the eighth inning that rallied the Americans over the NL 7-6 Tuesday night.
On a night when the teams turned serious and strategy took over, the unlikely shot off one of the majors' most dominant closers gave the AL champion home-field advantage in the World Series. Blalock and the Texas Rangers are stuck way in last place, but Jason Giambi, Ichiro Suzuki and several other stars surely owe him.
"Certainly, our guys in the clubhouse are going to be in the World Series, so I'm glad that I could help them out," Blalock said.
The NL was supposed to have the home-field edge this season. Yet after last season's disastrous 7-7 tie in 11 innings, baseball decided to juice up the All-Star game by attaching more meaning.
"For the American League, it's important to kind of steal one," New York Yankees ace Roger Clemens said before the first pitch. The AL did, recovering from a late four-run deficit in the biggest All-Star comeback since 1955.
Come Oct. 18 - Game 1 of the World Series - fans everywhere will see exactly how much this meant. Of the last eight Series to go to Game 7, the home team has won every one.
Giambi and Garret Anderson also homered as the AL posted its sixth straight victory - not counting the tie - and matched its longest winning streak ever. The result was in doubt until the final pitch, when Rafael Furcal flied out to the warning track.
Now, for the first time since Detroit hosted the opener in 1934 and 1935, 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."
And the NL has no one to blame except itself. 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.
Then, the vaunted NL bullpen blew it. Houston closer Billy 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.
Vernon Wells hit an RBI double with two outs and 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.
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.
Anderson, who took the Home Run Derby title Monday night, 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.
From the start, it was evident that 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 of the game 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. "At times, I think we were more conscious of late-inning matchups than we might have been if it was more of an exhibition game."
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 Hall of Famers Hank Aaron, Willie McCovey, Johnny Bench and Steve Carlton got hits in a five-run burst in 1969.
After Furcal singled as a pinch-hitter, Scioscia took out righty Shigetoshi 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 picked up the ball.
Scioscia argued the call with plate umpire Tim McClelland, to no avail.
Of course, Scioscia knows all about home-field advantage. Last October, his Anaheim Angels rallied to win Games 6 and 7 at home to beat out the San Francisco Giants for the championship. Anderson got the big hit in the deciding game.
There were no frivolous and overly friendly exchanges, certainly nothing like last summer when Bonds hoisted up Torii Hunter after being robbed of a home run.
There was a scary moment, however, when Edgar Martinez was beaned by Jason Schmidt. The 90-mph fastball cracked Martinez's helmet, but he was OK and stayed in the game.
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.
Carlos Delgado, leading the majors with 97 RBIs, put the AL ahead 1-0 in the third with a single off Randy Wolf that scored Suzuki.
Suzuki helped preserve the lead, temporarily, by jumping to make a backhanded catch in right-center on Albert Pujols' drive in the fourth.
Overall, 52 of the 64 players got into the game. The previous two years, 56 players took part.