Many will say interleague play in Major League Baseball has lost its luster, but it still has at least one gift to give every year.
It's an annual showdown of epic proportions, and the time has come for it to be renewed in 2016: Clayton Kershaw vs. Mike Trout.
Their matchup gets top billing for Tuesday night's tilt between the Los Angeles Angels and Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium. And on paper, the fourth meeting between Kershaw and Trout is just as worthy of a Mr. Burns "Excellent..." as the first three.
Kershaw is reveling in his usual Kershaw-ian dominance. The three-time Cy Young winner's 1.74 ERA isn't the best in the league, but nobody comes close to his 77-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Under these circumstances, Vin Scully is forgiven for mistaking the 28-year-old southpaw for Sandy Koufax.
With a .962 OPS and eight home runs, Trout is also abiding by his reputation. Even when Bryce Harper was challenging Trout for the "Best Player in Baseball" crown, Neil Paine of FiveThirtyEight wrote that Trout still ruled. And with teams now basically refusing to let Harper tap into his immense talent, Trout's position atop the "Best Player in Baseball" throne looks even safer.
There was little doubt Trout was the best when he and Kershaw first met in 2014. Trout was on his way to his first American League MVP after arguably getting robbed in 2012 and 2013, and he added to his legend by singling and doubling in his first two at-bats against Kershaw.
"It's always fun, going against the best," Trout said of Kershaw afterward, per Lyle Spencer of MLB.com. "He's a good person, and he battles out there. He's a competitor. I love battling guys like that."
But in their meetings since then, what Trout has had can't be described as "fun."
In seven of the last nine regular-season plate appearances Trout has against Kershaw, the 24-year-old center fielder has gone hitless and struck out three times. One of those punch-outs involved Kershaw's famed Uncle Charlie turning Trout into a statue in their first meeting of 2015:
Modern times being what they are, narratives must flow like spice on the planet Dune. In this case, 2014 brought the "what will happen?!" appeal of the first-ever meeting between the sport's best pitcher and best player. In 2015, it was the first time two reigning MVPs had ever faced off. Now in 2016, Trout has a score to settle.
How will that pan out? We'll find out Tuesday night.
In the meantime, the only thing to do is recognize just how darn cool it is that we find ourselves breathing heavy in anticipation once again.
Interleague play's faults are extensive. It makes scheduling a nightmare. For every cool regional matchup—i.e., New York's Subway Series, Chicago's Windy City Showdown or, yes, Southern California's Freeway Series—there are always random matchups that nobody cares about. And now that interleague play is a yearlong presence, having to switch between American League rules and National League rules has gone from cool novelty to frequent frustration.
Kershaw vs. Trout matchups, however, are to interleague play what marshmallows are to a bowl of Lucky Charms: tasty morsels good enough to make the whole thing worth it.
The essential gimmick of interleague play is creating matchups that would otherwise have a hard time coming to fruition. The Kershaw vs. Trout rivalry is a reminder that this is just as true on a player vs. player level as it is on the team vs. team level. Without interleague play, meaningful matchups between them could only happen in the All-Star Game or the World Series.
In the many years before interleague play arrived in 1997, that arrangement limited or prevented dream pitcher vs. hitter matchups. Ty Cobb never faced Christy Mathewson. Babe Ruth never faced Dazzy Vance. Ted Williams faced Warren Spahn only five times—all in All-Star Games. Mickey Mantle faced Sandy Koufax only eight times—all in the World Series. Bob Gibson and Carl Yastrzemski butted heads 13 times in 1967 between the All-Star Game and the World Series, but only three more times after that.
Kershaw and Trout have already squared off more than Mantle and Koufax ever did and are going to do battle many more times than Yaz and Gibson in the long run. Without interleague play, the chance of this happening would be somewhere between slim and none.
With Trout's Angels badly damaged by injuries and one bad contract, it's unlikely he and Kershaw will be meeting in the World Series anytime soon. And though they've already met twice in All-Star Games, the need for All-Star managers to make substitutions about as frequently as Aroldis Chapman fires 100 mph fastballs means that number might not climb much higher.
Of course, you can argue that Trout and Kershaw only meeting in the All-Star Game or the World Series would be appropriate, as those are the only baseball stages with spotlights big enough for the two of them. Instead, being able to count on them facing each other year after year thanks to interleague play arguably diminishes the grandeur of it. Less is more, et cetera.
But if you'll permit me to yell from my porch at any ungrateful so-and-sos out there, there are exceptions to the ol' "too much of a good thing" rule. If ever there was an appropriate embodiment of this notion, it's Kershaw vs. Trout showdowns.
Going back to 2012, Kershaw has been baseball's best pitcher and Trout has been baseball's best position player. To this extent, there's no better matchup of modern-day titans than this one. This is baseball's answer to Iron Man vs. Captain America.
But really, what's recent baseball history when compared to all of baseball history? Trout might be the best young player baseball has ever seen. Kershaw is one of the best young pitchers baseball has ever seen.
As such, even calling their rivalry a once-in-a-generation thing feels like selling it short. Theirs is the kind of rivalry that all generations wish for. That today's generation actually has one is worth celebrating.
Let us not take neither the latest Kershaw vs. Trout showdown nor any more to come for granted. Rather, let us take as much as we can get and ask for more.
For that, interleague play will keep delivering. It's not good for much, but at least it's good for that.