When we last left Interleague Play, it resulted in the highest-attended pre-Memorial Day weekend in Major League Baseball's rich history. That was the May 18-20 first-weekend Interleague stretch, and from Friday through June 24 it is American League vs. National League and a wild ride right through the official start of summer.
The AL is off to its usual start in these games, having posted a 24-18 record that first weekend, and will try to make it nine consecutive years of domination by the time this Interleague stretch is over. The AL went 126-125 in 2004, 136-116 in 2005, 154-98 in 2006, 137-115 in 2007, 149-103 in 2008, 137-114 in 2009, 134-118 in 2010 and 131-121 last year.
You'll see Tim Lincecum start for the Giants against the Rangers on Sunday for the first time since he won the 2010 World Series Game 5 clincher, and you'll see Justin Verlander vs. Joey Votto on Saturday in a big-time J.V. game. But without a doubt, East vs. East is understandably front and center in this "long stretch" of Interleague Play. Until the Phillies' current six-game losing streak, those divisions have been freakishly mirror homes of .500-or-better clubs.
With those divisions meeting each other in this year's rotation, consider these Friday openers: Mets at Yankees, Phillies at Orioles, Rays at Marlins, Nationals at Red Sox and Blue Jays at Braves. Get to your seats early, especially if you are among the lucky ones witnessing John Smoltz's No. 29 jersey retirement Friday or Sid Bream Slide Bobblehead Night on Saturday at Turner Field, all part of Alumni Weekend there. Get ready for Daisuke Matsuzaka's 2012 debut on Saturday for the Red Sox against Gio Gonzalez and the Nationals.
"I think it's great for baseball -- I really do," said Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley, talking about the East battle while visiting the MLB Fan Cave on Thursday. "You talk about Philly having been so dominant over that division for so long, five years in a row, there are a lot of teams that are better this year. Whether it's Miami, Washington, Atlanta -- it's going to be a good fight. In the American League, same thing. I think Toronto's better, Baltimore's better, everybody knows Tampa Bay has always been there, and it's the Red Sox and the Yankees.
"If you could have every division like that, it would be just exactly what baseball would want. Somebody different every year is not bad, either."
Pay special attention to the Marlins, because no one in the NL does Interleague Play like that franchise. Their 137-118 record (.537) is the NL's best record in Interleague history, and we're in the 16th year now. The Fish took two of three at Cleveland in that May 18-20 weekend, and that was part of an overall banner month for the club. It will be interesting to see whether Ozzie Guillen's club might rise to the top and find separation in the NL East, but they open against a Tampa Bay team leading the AL East. As you watch that Citrus Series, imagine the possibility of that as a World Series matchup -- a very realistic one at this point.
In New York, the Subway Series will generate excitement that has not been seen in a while. Johan Santana will start on Friday for the surprising Mets at Yankee Stadium in his bid to join Johnny Vander Meer as the only pitchers ever to throw back-to-back no-hitters. The Yankees, meanwhile, are just a half-game behind Baltimore atop the AL East. Watching Andy Pettitte start against the Mets on Sunday, it might feel like he never left.
"It's going to be great," Yankees right fielder Nick Swisher said of the Subway Series. "I feel like we're really starting to hit our stride right now, the Mets have been playing great all season long. It's going to be fun. We're all excited, because it's kind of bragging rights for New York."
At AT&T Park, it will be shades of the 2010 World Series when the Rangers and Giants begin a three-game series. In the opener, Matt Harrison goes for his eighth win, while Barry Zito (5-2) starts for the Giants. Probable pitchers the rest of the series include Scott Feldman vs. Ryan Vogelsong on Saturday and then that big matchup of Lincecum against the Rangers, with Alexi Ogando taking the hill on Sunday for his first 2012 start as Derek Holland is on the disabled list.
MLB drew 1,652,935 fans over 45 games on May 18-20. That total, which featured the first 42 Interleague games of the season, eclipsed the previous mark of 1,640,976 (May 19-21, 2006) for a pre-Memorial Day weekend. Overall, it was the largest weekend for total attendance since July 24-26, 2009, when 1,684,095 fans attended 46 games.
"I thank baseball fans for their remarkable support and I join them in looking forward to a great summer for our game," Commissioner Bud Selig said after that weekend. It set the stage for Round 2, and large crowds will prevail as MLB continues toward another year of top-5 attendance in history. Fenway Park fans are about to get a look at Stephen Strasburg (6-1) on Friday. At U.S. Cellular Field, it will be almost like the 2005 World Series when the Astros visit the White Sox. And Albert Pujols is about to have an extended stay against NL pitching.
Here we go again.