Round 2 of Interleague Play sparkles
Tribe, Nationals roll; rivalries set for next weekend
Sunday concluded a second round of Interleague Play that featured such highlights as Derek Jeter's first grand slam, the Yankees sweeping the Cubs in the North Siders' first visit to the Bronx since 1938, the Cardinals exacting a small measure of revenge against Boston, Vlad Guerrero returning to the fantasy front and the Indians roaring to a nine-game winning streak even with Ben Broussard bolting to the hospital to see the birth of his daughter.
Interleague play continues to leave indelible memories, and the fun isn't over yet.
This year marked the introduction of three specific stretches of those games that drive people wild between the American and National Leagues. The third round will come this weekend with more regional rivalries following a brief return of intraleague competition starting today.
"I love Interleague Play," Commissioner Bud Selig said this weekend. "It's one of the things I'm very proud of. It has energized the sport and created a lot of new rivalries. We have the great rivalries next weekend. I guess the line I use the most is, I first heard about it in the late '40s, when [Bill] Veeck and Hank Greenberg were talking about the possibility and fighting the establishment on many issues. They were right. Many people said to me, 'What took so long?' It's just wonderful.
"It isn't even the attendance increase. It just revitalizes, and sends a great jolt through the sport. The Red Sox are coming to Philly next weekend, and they're sold out for the whole weekend. Houston has been struggling, but Drayton [McClain, the Astros owner] told me, 'I can't wait till the Rangers get here. No tickets, we're sold out.' Our fans love it. It provides a great conversation piece for the sport. Frankly, each year I like it a little more."
The Indians have to love Interleague Play. They are an astounding 13-2 in that format this season, and that would improve to an unbelievable 16-2 if they can sweep the in-state rival Reds next weekend at Jacobs Field. How ironic that the Indians' last World Series title was in 1948, the same year of that attempt by Veeck and Greenberg to push through an Interleague experiment?
"I told them, 'Don't be afraid to win this one for my little girl,'" Broussard said of his teammates after he was given permission to break away from the ballpark Thursday and Friday nights to be with his wife as she went into labor. "They won two."
And then they made it three, finishing off the Diamondbacks with a 3-2 thriller Sunday.
Suddenly the Indians are 37-30 and the word "rebuilding" is nowhere to be heard. They are still 8 1/2 games behind the White Sox and a game behind the second-place Twins in the American League Central, but the Tribe can thank Interleague Play for this injection. The only question now will be whether this is the kind of spark that Tampa Bay had with its 15-3 Interleague record last year -- followed by a weak second half -- or whether it's the kind of jolt that lifted the Cardinals last year to a monster season.
Fans in San Diego and other novel sites have gotten a good look at youngsters like Grady Sizemore, who went into Saturday with an .832 OPS, second among AL center fielders behind Johnny Damon, and Jhonny Peralta, whose .850 OPS was third among AL shortstops behind Miguel Tejada and Michael Young. Cleveland's bullpen has been wicked as well, led by Bob Wickman, and Interleague Play became a sudden showcase for another hot AL Central club.
Interleague Play also marked the latest occurrence of a streak from the Yankees, and this one was a positive for the Bombers. They have won six in a row, and a spectacular homestand continues with a four-game series starting at 7:05 p.m. ET tonight against Tampa Bay. Then comes the real fun again, as the Mets visit Yankee Stadium, from Friday through Sunday. When those teams met in the first of the three Interleague rounds, it drew the largest three-day crowd in Shea Stadium history.
After losing 11 of 14 to fall two games under .500, the Yankees have rebounded to 36-32, five games behind Baltimore in the AL East. This streak started with a sweep of the Pirates, followed by the packed-house sweep of the Cubs.
"When we came back off that last trip, we weren't feeling too good about ourselves," said Mike Mussina, who on Sunday won his third straight start. "To play well in the Pittsburgh series and now the Cubs series, it helps us feel better about ourselves. We believe we're a good team."
So do the Cardinals, who won a series against Boston at the start of this latest stretch of Interleague Play. Then they took a series from the Yankees, who made their first visit to Busch Stadium. If the Cardinals and Yankees meet again at this Busch, it would have to be in the Fall Classic, because that ballpark will be razed to make room for the new Busch Stadium that opens in 2006.
Even better for the Cards, they now have Scott Rolen back from the disabled list. The Angels also got a much-needed boost during this Interleague stretch by the return of Guerrero, who remains in a starting position for the All-Star Game through the fan vote and is doing nothing to discourage voters. Since returning from the DL for the Mets series on June 10, Guerrero is 16-for-37 (.432), with three homers (including a walk-off blast Saturday), eight RBIs and 26 total bases.
Meanwhile, Interleague Play saw Arizona lose Russ Ortiz to the DL, just as the Yankees lost Kevin Brown for a while. Mark Teixeira went up to the top of the Majors' home run chart with No. 20, and the Dodgers continued to scuffle in finishing the weekend on a six-game slide. How much difference can a year make? Those same Devil Rays are 3-12 against the NL this time.
Maybe the biggest story of all, though, continues to be what's happening with the Washington Nationals. Interleague or intraleague, it doesn't seem to matter to manager Frank Robinson's guys anymore. This stretch of Interleague Play also will be remembered for a wild episode between Robinson and Angels manager Mike Scioscia over the Brendan Donnelly glove check, but the Nationals will remember it mostly as continued success in the NL East standings. They are 40-29 in their first season after leaving Montreal, and could threaten to become the most successful Major League club in modern history when playing its first year in a new market.
This weekend's final stretch of Interleague series will include: Cubs at White Sox; Reds at Indians; Mets at Yankees; Marlins at Devil Rays; Dodgers at Angels; Giants at A's; Red Sox at Phillies; Blue Jays at Nationals; Orioles at Braves (welcome back, Javy Lopez); Twins at Brewers; Rangers at Astros; Royals at Rockies; Tigers at Diamondbacks; and Mariners at Padres. Pittsburgh at St. Louis will be the lone intraleague series that weekend.
Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. Reporters Mark Feinsand and Justice B. Hill contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.