By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The shut-down performance by American League relievers in this year's All-Star game showcased the winning edge a bullpen can offer a contender as Major League Baseball enters the second half of its season on Friday.
It may have been Mariano Rivera's night at Tuesday's All-Star game at Citi Field as the evergreen closer was given an emotional salute in his last Midsummer Classic, but Mo did not stand alone as a parade of relievers dominated the action.
The 13-man American League pitching staff featured seven relievers and six of them helped finish the combined three-hitter crafted by 10 AL hurlers in a 3-0 victory over the National League.
Joe Nathan wrapped it up to register the save, following Rivera, Steve Delabar, Brett Cecil, Greg Holland and Grant Balfour to the mound.
American League manager Jim Leyland decided to use the 43-year-old Rivera in the eighth instead of his usual ninth inning setting to make sure he got the future Hall of Famer into the game for his 13th and last All-Star team.
But Leyland knows where the crucial outs are registered.
"I can't imagine how Joe Torre and Joe Girardi feel bringing him in the ninth, that's a pretty good feeling," Leyland said about Yankees managers who won a passel of World Series with Rivera coming out of the bullpen as the closer.
Pitching is king, with bullpens a critical component.
The Pittsburgh Pirates, one game behind the St. Louis Cardinals in the tight National League Central race, lead all of MLB in earned run average at 3.07 and top the NL in saves with 34 and in converting 79 percent of their save opportunities.
Pittsburgh also leads the league in catchiest nickname for a bullpen, the "Shark Tank," a moniker applied after set-up man Mark Melancon regaled team mates about a shark-cage diving trip he had taken with his wife.
Leading the way for the Pirates is converted set-up man Jason Grilli, who like Melancon was on the All-Star team. Grilli has notched 29 saves and Melancon has set him up with a microscopic ERA of 0.81 in 45 appearances.
Strong bullpens are also helping the NL East-leading Atlanta Braves, the NL's second-ranked team in ERA. Their 27 saves ties them with NL West-leading Arizona and puts them one save behind the Cardinals for second best in that category.
In the American League, the Texas Rangers are in hot pursuit of the Oakland Athletics in the West in a race between two clubs with outstanding relief.
The Rangers, with Nathan as their closer, have completed a remarkable 89 percent of their save opportunities, while Oakland reliever Grant Balfour is on a run of 43 consecutive saves dating back to last year for the reigning AL West champions.
There are exceptions, as the Detroit Tigers lead the AL Central and the Boston Red Sox are in front in the AL East despite bullpen question marks.
Leyland and the Tigers are blessed with a bountiful attack, a strong rotation of starting pitchers and a weak division, while the Red Sox have gotten surprisingly steady starting pitching and potent offense to make up for losing closer Joel Hanrahan to injury and inconsistent form from Andrew Bailey.
The AL East could see a shuffle as Tampa Bay, hampered by a bumpy start by closer Fernando Rodney, are rebounding just as Rodney seems to have rediscovered the form he flashed in last year's breakout season.
And the Yankees, of course, still have Rivera who has converted 30 of 32 saves for a team that could join the pennant race if they get back the injured Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Curtis Granderson and find a way to score more runs.
(Editing by Frank Pingue)