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First baseman Smoak Blue Jays’ sole all-star selection for mid-summer classic

Toronto Blue Jays’ Justin Smoak hits a two-run home run against the Tampa Bay Rays in the sixth inning in Toronto on Saturday April 29, 2017. (Fred Thornhill/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

One lone bright spot coming out of the Toronto Blue Jays’ dismal homestand was Justin Smoak’s selection to the American League all-star team. The switch-hitting first baseman has been Toronto’s most consistent and productive player in an otherwise difficult season.

After registering his 20th multihit game of the season in Toronto’s loss to the Boston Red Sox on Sunday, the team announced Smoak had earned his place on the AL team by winning a fan vote.

Aaron Judge, Carlos Correa and Nolan Arenado were among 12 first-time starters elected Sunday for the All-Star Game at Miami on July 11, the most since voting was returned to fans in 1970.

Just one player was picked from the World Series champion Cubs: Reliever Wade Davis, who wasn’t even with Chicago when it ended a 108-year title drought last fall. The Cubs had seven all-stars last season.

Although he’s been a major leaguer for nearly eight seasons, Smoak, a former first-round draft pick, admitted he hadn’t lived up to expectations until this season.

“I feel like worked so hard to change a lot of things to get better, and at one point in my career, I’d forgotten how I used to hit,” said Smoak, who signed as a free agent with the Blue Jays in 2014 after most of five seasons in Seattle with the Mariners. “I think I’ve learned from it, and I’m back to how I felt as a kid, as an amateur I’m getting back to that point now.”

Smoak, who has hit 22 homers this season and boasts a .303 batting average, said he declined an invitation to participate in the home run derby at this year’s All-Star Game.

Jays manager John Gibbons said Smoak’s two-year contract extension, which he signed in the off-season for $8.5-million (U.S.), could have provided the native of South Carolina with added incentive to prove his worth.

“He hasn’t let off. He’s been doing it both sides of the plate,” Gibbons said. “You don’t see it that often. It was a battle for him last year. He got rewarded with a nice contract extension, maybe that helped him a little.”

Two of the first-time all-star starters are from the Houston Astros, who have the best record in the major leagues: Shortstop Correa and outfielder George Springer. Second baseman Jose Altuve was elected to his third start.

Houston pitchers Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers Jr. were picked, as well, giving the Astros five all-stars, tied for the most with the New York Yankees, Cleveland and Washington. Keuchel is hurt and won’t pitch.

Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper, second baseman Daniel Murphy and first baseman Ryan Zimmerman were elected to start, and Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg were selected for the pitching staff. Harper led fan voting with 4.63 million ballots.

Judge, the 6-foot-7 rookie who leads the major leagues with 27 home runs, topped the AL with 4.49 million votes. He is joined in the outfield by Springer and Los Angeles Angels star Mike Trout, who hopes to return in time from a torn ligament in his thumb.

Cleveland’s Jose Ramirez overtook Minnesota’s Miguel Sano in the final days of balloting to win the AL third-base spot by about 54,000 votes, Smoak bounced back to beat Kansas City’s Eric Hosmer by 555,000 at first base, and Tampa Bay’s Corey Dickerson rallied to win at designated hitter by nearly 75,000 over Seattle’s Nelson Cruz. The Royals’ Salvador Perez won at catcher.

Arenado overtook the Cubs’ Kris Bryant, last year’s NL MVP, to win at third base by 180,000. Arenado will be joined in the NL lineup by Cincinnati shortstop Zack Cozart, Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon, Miami outfielder Marcell Ozuna and San Francisco catcher Buster Posey.

There were 11 first-time starters last season in San Diego, the last year the winning league received home-field advantage in the World Series. Under baseball’s new labour contract, the Series now starts in the ballpark of the pennant winner with the better record.

In a sign of the generational change, the All-Stars with the most selections are Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw with eight and St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina with seven. Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera, an 11-time all-star, wasn’t picked for the first time since 2009.

The AL had won four in a row and went 11-3 in the years the All-Star Game determined World Series home field. Marlins Park is the third of four straight NL ballparks to host the all-stars and will be followed by Washington in 2018.