The first-place Braves landed five players on the National League All-Star team announced Sunday, including surprise selection Omar Infante, a veteran utility player that no one had predicted would make the team.
Rookie outfielder Jason Heyward was voted a starter by the fans and will be joined on the NL All-Star team by Infante, five-time All-Star catcher Brian McCann, second baseman Martin Prado and pitcher Tim Hudson.
Heyward, the second-youngest player selected an All-Star starter, is currently on the disabled list with a left-thumb injury, but has not ruled out playing in the July 13 All-Star game at Anaheim.
Closer Billy Wagner is also one of five finalists for the last spot on the team, to be selected by fans this week in voting online.
When Infante got a call from Braves general manager Frank Wren at 8:30 a.m. Sunday, the last thing he was thinking was that it had anything to do with the All-Star game.
“I got a call from Frank Wren, and the first thought I had was that I got traded,” Infante said through an interpreter. “I was kind of nervous and choked up. By the time Frank told me I was going to the All-Star game, I thought he was joking around. It took, like, five minutes for me to realize I’m going to the All-Star game.”
His reaction at that point?
“I was jumping around with my wife and kid,” Infante said, smiling. “I was so happy. I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it.”
Neither could teammates, who were surprised and thrilled to learn of the selection of Infante. He’s one of the most popular players in the clubhouse and has been one of the Braves’ best clutch hitters.
“I was so happy; I couldn’t believe it,” Prado said of having his fellow Venezuelan selected. “Our families are going to be so proud of us. We spend off days together, as a family. I’m his son’s godfather. It’s a very special moment for us.”
Just over a year ago, Prado and Infante were both Braves utility players. Now they’re both All-Stars, and Prado is the National League batting leader with a .336 average and majors-leading 115 hits at the season’s exact midpoint (81 games) before Sunday.
“I called all our guys this morning, called all the All-Stars, and they asked me, who else made it?” Wren said. “And when I got to Omar’s name, they were happier for Omar than they were for themselves. I think that speaks to our team. They were so excited for Omar, it was unbelievable.”
Infante has played five positions for the Braves and hit .311 with eight doubles, one homer and 22 RBIs in 164 at-bats. He ranks fifth in the NL with a .367 average with runners in scoring position, including .421 with two outs.
Infante was among the players added to the roster by Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, who’ll manage the NL All-Star team. In seven games against the Phillies, Infante is 6-for-17 (.353) with three RBIs.
“I give Charlie a lot of credit for [picking Infante],” said third baseman Chipper Jones. “I was very surprised. I mean, you don’t usually see the utility guys get their just due. Just goes to show you, you make the right impression to the right manager, you get rewarded for it.
“He can play the infield, the outfield, hits righties, lefties, doesn’t matter. Just a nice versatile guy to have. Shows that Charlie’s doing his homework.”
Beginning with a three-hit game against the Phillies on May 9, Infante has hit .340 (35-for-103) with five doubles, 14 RBI and 14 runs in his past 37 games. He had at least three at-bats in 20 games during that stretch, and produced 11 multi-hit games in those 20.
“I was thrilled,” Braves manager Bobby Cox said of Infante’s selection. “I thought it was the greatest pick ever. It was a surprise pick, but it makes all the sense in the world.
“Because when you manage those teams, or you take an All-Star team to Japan, you always end up calling [players'] managers and saying, look, if I’m in a bind do you mind if I play your shortstop at second or third? And they always go, ‘Yeah, go ahead.’ Reluctantly, they all say yes. But you don’t want your guy out of position. So that’s the best move I’ve seen.”
Five All-Stars is the most for the Braves since 2003, when they had seven. They had three All-Stars in 2006, the only time they had more than two in the past six seasons.
“We’ve got the best record in the National League, we ought to have a bunch of guys on the team,” Jones said. “Probably had a couple more guys that could have made it, should have made it. But we’ll take what we’ve got.”
Infante and Prado join Heyward as first-time selections, while Hudson (8-3, 2.37 ERA) was selected for the third time overall and first time in the National League. He was an All-Star with Oakland in 2000 and ‘04.
A year ago, McCann became the first player in Braves history to make the All-Star team in each of his first four full seasons. Now, he’s made it in five in a row after being selected to the team in the player vote.
“Maybe one day I’ll be able to sit back and [reflect] on what it means,” McCann said of being a five-time All-Star at 26. “But I’m still young and I want to do more in this game. Every time I go it’s an honor… To be voted on by the guys you play against every day, and have their respect, that means the most.”
Prado made the All-Star team barely one year after become a lineup regular on June 30, 2009.
He will likely be the NL’s starting second baseman in Anaheim, because Philadephia’s Chase Utley is on the disabled list. Among second basemen, Prado was second to Utley in fan voting.
“Spending some time with guys like [St. Louis' Albert] Pujols is going to be very big for me,” Prado said. “I’m just going to enjoy my three days and try to take advantage of my first experience in an All-Star game, and then come back with [determination] to play that second half.”
As for possibly starting in place of Utley, he said, “I’ve heard that being one of the nine guys in the starting lineup is one of the greatest things about being an All-Star. They call your name during the pre-game stuff. If I start the game, it would be awesome.”
In 158 games since moving into the starting lineup on June 30, 2009, Prado hit .327 with 52 doubles, 15 homers, 76 RBIs and a .369 on-base percentage. The Braves had a 90-68 record in those games.
Since moving into the leadoff position in mid-May, Prado has hit .362 with a majors-leading .395 OBP from the leadoff spot.
Besides Wagner, the most questionable All-Star omission for the Braves was first baseman Troy Glaus, who leads the team with 14 homers and led the league in RBIs after driving in 46 runs in a 46-game stretch before a recent slump.
Glaus is 4-for-34 (.118) with one RBI in his past 10 games, after batting .316 with 12 homers and 46 RBIs and a .988 OPS (on-base-plus-slugging percentage) in 47 games from May 1 through June 20.