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AL MANAGER PRAISES PRICE

American League manager Joe Girardi wasn't ready to make any commitments Thursday. But as for indications that Rays LHP David Price will throw the first pitch in Tuesday's All-Star Game, it was a good start.

The Yankees manager called Price an "extremely strong" candidate to start and said he wouldn't hold the 24-year-old's youth and/or inexperience against him in making the decision, which is due Monday.

"I'll look at the numbers, who I believe deserves to start the game, and we'll go from there," Girardi said on a conference call.

Those measure well for Price, who leads the AL with 12 wins and is second with a 2.42 ERA. Plus, he'll be on full rest.

The other candidates: New York's Phil Hughes and Andy Pettitte, Seattle's Cliff Lee and Boston's Jon Lester.

"(Price is) an extremely strong candidate," Girardi said. "He's had a fabulous first half."

Price maintained his cool when told of Girardi's assessment.

"It means I'm an extremely strong candidate," he said. "I haven't put any thought into it."

There are three other starters on the AL staff, but New York's CC Sabathia and Oakland's Trevor Cahill will be ineligible under a new rule because they are scheduled to start Sunday. They are expected to be replaced on the roster. Cleveland's Fausto Carmona, who is 7-7, is the other.

In talking about other players "that are probably going to be left off" the team, Girardi offered an unsolicited endorsement of Rays RHP Jeff Niemann, saying he "has had a tremendous season (and) is deserving of going to the All-Star Game." Niemann, however, also is scheduled to pitch Sunday.

LAST START A NEW START? RHP James Shields (7-8, 4.83 ERA) will look to even his record today in his 18th start of the season and last before next week's break.

After a stellar opening seven weeks, Shields has struggled. He's 2-6 with a 7.97 ERA in his past eight appearances (seven starts) and hasn't won at Tropicana Field since April 28.

"Whatever I've done in the past is behind me," he said. "We're on a nice little roll right now, so I'm going to try to step my game up a little bit and try to keep it going with the team."

Manager Joe Maddon said Shields' numbers are a bit deceiving.

"I stand by this: He's throwing the ball well," he said, mentioning Shields threw his curve better in his most recent outing, a 7-4 win against Minnesota.

That view could come into play as Maddon and his staff plan to talk today about the rotation for the second half of the season.

PITCHING IN WHENEVER: RHP Matt Garza said he came through his third career appearance as a reliever Wednesday fine, and it was no different than an off-day bullpen session.

"It was the same intensity," he said. "I can only work one way, and that's hard."

Garza will make his scheduled start Saturday against the Indians, but Maddon said he will "probably have him on a shorter leash," even though he felt pretty good Thursday.

The other plus of having Garza in the bullpen? Maddon quipped it was "much quieter" in the dugout.

BIG BOPPER: OF Dan Johnson hit his 23rd homer of the season on Wednesday for Triple-A Durham, tops in the International League and second in all of the minors.

He is hitting .304 with 77 RBIs. Those numbers have caught Maddon's attention.

"He's not just down there being lucky, getting hits," he said. "He's a good hitter. We look at that all the time."

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