Out of Their League: Last Week's 10 Most Compelling Interleague Matchups
For many fans, interleague play is among the highlights of the baseball season.
When the Senior and Junior Circuits collide, the games are interesting, to say the least.
Teams have to adjust to different styles of play. Hitters face pitchers they've never seen before, and hurlers have to adjust their approaches against a whole different breed of batters.
Interleague play also gives us the chance to speculate about possible World Series previews.
But the best part of interleague play is the great matchups it sets up.
The background drama is often overblown, but it truly seems as though each series has a story behind it.
Some matchups put geographical rivals against each other. Sometimes stars face their old teams, and sometimes classic World Series rematches unfold.
Interleague play doesn't really get going until the middle of June, but this weekend we got our first taste of it. Here's a look at the 10 most compelling matchups we saw, and how they turned out.
No. 10: King of the (Capitol) Hill
Baltimore Orioles (14-31) vs. Washington Nationals (23-22)
The easiest interleague dramas to contrive are matchups between teams who share the same media market.
The Orioles and Nationals are far from the most interesting geographical rivalry, but they are the newest. That counts for something, right?
It wasn't long ago that the O's were the de facto favorite team of Washington, D.C. When President Bartlet threw out the first pitch at a baseball game on The West Wing, he did so at Camden Yards; his advisor, Yankees fan Toby Ziegler, is horrified when he discovers his kids' favorite team is the Orioles.
That wouldn't happen now that the Nats have moved in.
How'd it go?
The Nats' insane ability to win close games (19-12 in games decided by three runs or less) doesn't seem to be fading. After splitting the first two tight contests with the Birds, Josh Willingham smashed a 10th-inning walk-off home run Sunday to give Washington the series.
No. 9: The World Series That Wasn't
Detroit Tigers (25-19) vs. Los Angeles Dodgers (25-19)
When I saw that the Tigers and Dodgers were scheduled to square off this weekend, my first thought was, "Oh boy, this will be a rematch of some classic World Series from yesteryear."
As I scrolled through lists of Fall Classics past, I realized I was wrong.
These are two of the most historic teams in baseball history. They have 28 World Series appearances between them—point to any year since 1903, and there's more than a one-in-four chance that one of these two clubs won its league's pennant.
And yet, they have never faced each other with the championship at stake.
Therefore, I expected that this matchup would be one to remember.
How'd it go?
The Dodgers won the first two games, then Detroit came back to win on Sunday. They were good games, sure, but they certainly didn't fill the void of memorable contests in these teams' histories.
No. 8: The Unsuccessful Trade Partners
Toronto Blue Jays (26-20) vs. Arizona Diamondbacks (20-25)
If these two teams were second-graders, their conversation might go something like this:
TOR: Hey, I bet you're really mad that we canceled that Chris Snyder-for-Lyle Overbay deal this winter. LOL!
ARI: Actually, Miguel Montero got injured and Adam LaRoche is having a career year, so it's a good thing you did. Take that!
TOR: Good comeback. Too bad it doesn't matter, since I'm actually a good team this year. Enjoy last place, loser!
ARI: (runs home crying)
How'd it go?
Arizona took the first two, but on Sunday, Toronto trounced the D-Backs, 12-4 (at which point they ran home crying). Snyder wasn't terribly impressive (1-for-6 with two walks), but Overbay did well (5-for-13) against his almost-employers.
No. 7: The Scouting Report
Chicago Cubs (21-24) vs. Texas Rangers (25-20)
On the surface, this isn't a particularly noteworthy matchup; the Cubs and Rangers have no longstanding history or rivalries (besides the fact that their team colors are almost identical).
But this was a very important series for Chicago's scouting department.
In case you haven't noticed, the North Siders have signed three former Texas outfielders to questionably large contracts in the last four offseasons.
Batting cleanup and manning left field for the Cubbies in Game One was Alfonso Soriano, who signed a massive $136 million contract with Chicago in 2006—less than a year after the rebuilding Rangers traded him to the Nationals.
Hitting behind him was center fielder Marlon Byrd, who the Cubs added this winter after his career year in Arlington in 2009. The same thing happened almost exactly 12 months earlier with Milton Bradley.
Coincidence? Probably. But it's still an interesting trend.
How'd it go?
This was a win-win series for Chicago. Not only did they win two of three in a well-fought series (each game was decided by one run), but they may have found their next target: Nelson Cruz (4-for-9 with three walks and a homer).
No. 6: The Battle of Ohio
Cincinnati Reds (25-19) vs. Cleveland Indians (16-26)
In my MVP Baseball video game, my Indians defeated the Reds in an epic seven-game World Series in 2006. Unfortunately, that's much more exciting than anything that's ever happened between these two teams in real life.
It's somewhat surprising that an intra-state rivalry between two historical teams hasn't had any moments for the history books.
Perhaps the most compelling story of the series is that each team's lineup is anchored by a player who the other club gave up on too soon.
Declared a bust after bouncing between Cleveland and Triple-A Buffalo for three years, second baseman Brandon Phillips emerged as a star immediately after touching down in Cincinnati in 2006.
Meanwhile, former Reds top prospect Austin Kearns is reviving his career in Cleveland, where he has won a starting job and emerged as the team's second-best hitter.
How'd it go?
Phillips went 5-for-13 against his former team, socking three doubles and a homer while crossing the plate four times as the Reds took two of three from the Tribe. Meanwhile, Kearns went 3-for-9 with a double, but stranded six runners as the Indians struggled to score.
No. 5: The Short Straws
Atlanta Braves (23-21) vs. Pittsburgh Pirates (19-25)
Each installment of interleague play gives 28 teams the chance to play against unfamiliar clubs.
It's a battle of different styles of play; for those involved, it's new, it's exciting, and it's fun.
But two teams always get left out.
The Braves and Pirates drew the short straw for the first series of interleague games. If I were Jason Heyward or Andrew McCutchen, you can bet I'd be frustrated, and would therefore play with increased intensity.
How'd it go?
Fresh off a string of three straight walk-off victories, Atlanta stormed out of the gate and outscored the Bucs 11-2 in the first two games. But the Braves got a taste of their own medicine Sunday when Ryan Doumit hit a game-winning homer in the bottom of the 10th.
No. 4: The One-Sided Matchup
Tampa Bay Rays (32-12) vs. Houston Astros (15-29)
These teams aren't geographically close or historical rivals. In a vacuum, this series would look pretty boring.
But a quick look at the sports page shows something interesting: this is literally the second-most one-sided matchup possible in baseball.
Tampa Bay entered the series at 30-11 (.731), good for a five-game lead in the most competitive division in baseball.
Houston, meanwhile, came in with a miserable 14-27 (.341) record. After a quarter of the season, the Astros were already 10 games behind in the Wild Card race.
The 16-game difference between the teams was the second-largest disparity between any two teams in baseball. That's the equivalent of a 63-game disparity over a full season.
How'd it go?
The Astros defied the odds on Friday as Brett Myers out-dueled Matt Garza, but the Rays came roaring back to win the other two games. Still, winning one out of three has to be a victory for Houston, given the circumstances.
No. 3: The Yankee Haters
Boston Red Sox (24-21) vs. Philadelphia Phillies (26-17)
The thing these two teams have most in common is an enemy.
No sports rivalry will ever top the feud between the Red Sox and the Yankees. It's just not going to happen.
But after last year's World Series humiliation, Phillies fans are almost as likely to put down their cheese steaks and boo the Bronx Bombers as their Boston counterparts (though I've yet to see someone scrawl "TRAITOR" on an old Bobby Abreu jersey).
The winner of this series, you could have said, would be the rightful heir to challenge the Evil Empire's throne.
Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that Boston's manager Terry Francona—the man who led the Red Sox to their dramatic comeback against New York in 2004—once served as the Phillies' skipper.
Of course, this matchup would be worth watching just for the caliber of the teams involved.
How'd it go?
The Phillies took Game one behind a streaking Cole Hamels (3-0, 2.36 ERA in May), but the Red Sox returned the favor the next night as Daisuke Matsuzaka took a no-hitter into the eighth inning.
Boston won the rubber match Sunday as Roy Halladay suffered a rare subpar performance (seven runs on eight hits in 5.2 innings).
No. 2: The Subway Series
New York Yankees (26-17) vs. New York Mets (21-23)
Yes, there's the Roger Clemens/Mike Piazza feud, but the real source of this rivalry is these teams' shared city.
The Yankees have built up one of the most successful and recognized sports franchises in the world.
The Mets, meanwhile, are often referred to as "New York's other team."
For example, when the Bombers decided to move from Yankee Stadium to an almost-identical ballpark with the same name right across the street, they were rewarded with the 2008 All-Star Game and more media coverage than they knew what to do with.
The Mets closed their classic Shea Stadium the same year, but no one cared. Somewhat fittingly, their last game in the old park was a loss that eliminated them from playoff contention.
The Mets hate the Yankees, but I suspect the hatred isn't completely mutual. After all, the Mets's repeated failures are proof that it takes slightly more than a trained monkey to win with an extravagant payroll.
How'd it go?
Could the Mets really be New York's best team? After splitting a pair of close contests, Johan Santana out-dueled C.C. Sabathia in the rubber game, a match-up between the two highest-paid pitchers in baseball (their combined 2010 salaries exceed $44 million).
With the game on the line and the winning run at the plate, the marquee matchup ended when the highest-paid player in the game, Alex Rodriguez, hacked and missed at strike three.
No. 1: The Battle by the Bay
San Francisco Giants (22-21) vs. Oakland Athletics (23-22)
Trivia question: what has been the most common World Series matchup that doesn't involve the Yankees?
Answer: this one.
In the 1905 Fall Classic—the first World Series since it became an annual tradition—John McGraw's New York Giants won four of five against Connie Mack and the Philadelphia A's (incidentally, this is the only time in the history of this matchup that the Giants were victorious).
The teams have met in October three more times, most memorably in 1989, when the series was delayed by an earthquake.
These clubs have more than just their new locations in common: both teams were respected for their pitching staffs, but questions abounded about their offenses. Neither was expected to be a realistic contender, and both were expected to end up around the middle of their respective divisions, at best.
So far, though, both the Giants and A's have played relatively well and are within striking distance of their divisions' leaders.
How'd it go?
So much for San Francisco's improved offense. Oakland held the Giants to just a single run in their three-game sweep. Seven A's pitchers combined to shut out the Giants for 20 consecutive innings.