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'Uncle Mike' leads Astros six-pack into ASG

@brianmctaggart
July 9, 2019

In his 10 seasons as a member of the Indians, outfielder Michael Brantley built a reputation as one of the game’s best hitters, though he remained sorely underrated across the game. Perhaps it’s because Brantley wasn’t a brawny home run hitter or a flashy showman on the field. He was

In his 10 seasons as a member of the Indians, outfielder Michael Brantley built a reputation as one of the game’s best hitters, though he remained sorely underrated across the game. Perhaps it’s because Brantley wasn’t a brawny home run hitter or a flashy showman on the field. He was as steady and dependable as your mom’s sedan. He was Dr. Smooth.

• All-Star Game presented by Mastercard: Tonight, 6:30 CT on FOX

Indians fans held Brantley in much higher regard and appreciated his talent more the rest of the game's fans, having seen his elite contact skills up close for a decade. The Astros valued him, too, and saw him as the ideal fit on their built-to-win club, signing him to a two-year deal prior this season. Brantley’s left-handed bat has been as good as ever in Houston, and he was rewarded by being voted to start the All-Star Game for the first time in his career.

The fact the All-Star Game will be played in Brantley’s former home at Progressive Field in Cleveland will make this year’s Midsummer Classic an unforgettable homecoming for him and his family.

“It’s very special to go back to the place I broke into the Major Leagues and go back to Cleveland,” Brantley said. “I’m going with a great group of teammates. When the time comes, we’ll see how I’m feeling. I’m very excited and thankful.”

The 2019 All-Star Game presented by Mastercard will be played tonight at Progressive Field in Cleveland. It will be televised nationally by FOX Sports; in Canada by Rogers Sportsnet and RDS; and worldwide by partners in more than 180 countries. FOX Deportes will provide Spanish-language coverage in the United States, while ESPN Radio and ESPN Radio Deportes will provide exclusive national radio coverage. MLB Network, MLB.com and SiriusXM also will provide comprehensive All-Star Week coverage.

Brantley was voted as a starter in the outfield with teammates George Springer (outfield) and Alex Bregman (third base), last year’s All-Star Game Most Valuable Player. Astros right-handed pitchers Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Ryan Pressly also made the American League team, giving Houston a club-record and Major League-best six All-Stars.

“He’s been everything as advertised, if not more,” said Springer, who has grown close to Brantley. “He’s the ultimate professional on and off the field, but the stuff he does in our lineup every day, the presence he commands, the stuff he can do as a hitter, is something to be seen. I believe guys like him are a dying breed. He went like 20-something at-bats without swinging and missing. It’s crazy how stuff like that happens.”

Springer and Brantley have become so tight that they live close to each other and carpool to and from Minute Maid Park when they can. In Spring Training, Springer dubbed Brantley “Uncle Mike,” because he was the older, steady influence who handed out good advice.

“They wanted to give me a nickname in spring, and asked me what I liked and I told them I didn’t care,” Brantley said. “All of a sudden, they started to call me ‘Uncle Mike’ and it stuck. I’ve been called a lot worse.”

Bregman, who took part in the T-Mobile Home Run Derby on Monday (he was eliminated in the first round), is built for the big stage. He came up with numerous clutch hits for the Astros in their World Series run two years ago -- including a walk-off hit in an epic Game 5 win over the Dodgers -- and last year hit a game-tying homer in the 10th inning of the All-Star Game in Washington. He’s one of the game’s brightest and most marketable young stars, something he embraces.

“It’s incredible, an honor, a dream come true,” Bregman said of his All-Star start. “It’s something I dreamed about as a kid. To be able to start this year is really special.”

Springer, who received his third-career All-Star selection (2017-19) and second career All-Star start, was having a Most Valuable Player-caliber season before a hamstring injury cost him a month of the season. Still, the former World Series MVP is one of the dynamic players in the game -- the kind the All-Star Game was built to showcase.

“It’s awesome,” Springer said. “I’m very, very humbled by it. I know I missed a lot of time and all that, but I’m honored to go and honored to represent Houston.”

The only first-time All-Star from among the Astros is Pressly, whose popularity among his teammates is as deep as the impact he’s had on the club as a pitcher. Acquired from the Twins in a trade last July, Pressly has emerged as one of the most dominant relievers in the game with his elite swing-and-miss arsenal. Earlier this year, he set a Major League record with 40 consecutive scoreless appearances (2018-19).

“To be able to celebrate something like that at the All-Star Game for the first time is what I’m most excited about,” said Verlander, an eight-time All-Star. “Guys will downplay it as much as they can. They don’t want to put too much [attention] on themselves. For me, to see something like that and see the notoriety and the fruits of his labor manifest itself into him getting into an All-Star Game for the first time, I enjoyed watching it.”

Astros manager AJ Hinch routinely throws Pressly into the fire -- high-leverage situations against the most challenging part of the opponents’ lineup -- so the reliever should be comfortable facing dangerous hitters in the All-Star Game.

“I’m very excited and happy to be able to do that, but I couldn’t have done it without any of my teammates,” Pressly said. “They’re out with me, driving me, [and] [Max] Stassi and [Robinson] Chirinos behind the plate calling the pitches and doing what they need to do to get people out.”

Verlander is 12 years removed from his first All-Star Game and pitching as well as he has in his terrific career. At 36, he’s learned to enjoy each All-Star Game nod more, admitting he began to take it for granted during a stretch (2009-13) when he was a Midsummer Classic mainstay.

Perhaps the biggest thing he’s looking forward to this year is being able to talk to younger All-Stars, such as Lucas Giolito of the White Sox, who might have looked up to him when they were teenagers. Verlander remembers being awed at his first All-Star Game in 2007 by seeing names like Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez next to his.

“It’s a new chapter and interesting dynamic that I guess you don’t really pay much attention to until it’s like, ‘Oh, boy, I’m the older veteran that was in an All-Star Game when you were in high school or something,’” he said. “It’s a fun, new chapter and fun experience for me.”

Cole has been outstanding since joining Houston prior to last season, earning All-Star nods each year. He’s become one of the game’s most dominant right-handed pitchers and is on pace for a 300-strikeout season.

“What’s really unique about our system is for the starting pitchers, you have to be voted in by the players,” said Cole, who also made the All-Star team in 2015 with Pittsburgh. “When you’re selected, it’s really humbling to know the rest of the professional baseball world respects what you do.”

Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.