On a windy morning at spring training, a trio of Phillies catchers met behind the batting cage to shoot the breeze.
The topic? Interleague intrigue, right from the get-go.
“We were just talking about that in batting practice that it’s a little weird to face the American League so early,” All-Star Carlos Ruiz said. “But it’s a different schedule this year.”
Josh Hamilton and the Los Angeles Angels visit Cincinnati in an opener that’s hardly traditional. Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera and the Detroit Tigers finish the season at Miami — minus a designated hitter.
Derek Jeter and the Yankees cross over to the National League each month, then host World Series champion San Francisco in late September. Just a guess — New York fans will howl at the prospect of seeing Matt Cain and the pitching-rich Giants if a playoff spot is at stake.
Add up the scattered AL vs. NL matchups, it’s like a mini-World Series most every day.
“It’s going to be totally different,” said Houston manager Bo Porter, one of six new skippers in the majors.
Might as well blame Porter’s Astros, too. Their shift from the NL Central to the AL West left 15 teams in each league, creating all this havoc.
Opening day is March 31 in Houston when Texas comes to town for a Sunday night start.
That’s followed by Angels-Reds on April 1. A few days later, Philadelphia plays its home opener — against the Kansas City Royals.
Just sounds jarring, doesn’t it?
“It is very strange,” Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker said. “This usually doesn’t happen until June or July.”
“What it does is it increases your workload on scouting, advance reports and things like that. You don’t have a lot of familiarity on those teams,” he said.
Part of baseball’s changing landscape, Commissioner Bud Selig says.
“I’m very protective of interleague play, but everybody convinced me it that would work from Day One, and I’m satisfied it will,” he said.
“We have to quit worrying about it. We play 162 games. The season is a long journey. It’s not a sprint. When the year is over, everybody has played everybody else. When you play it is no reason not to do something,” he said.
As the season approached, a lot of big names settled into new settings.
Hamilton left Texas for the Angels, teaming with Albert Pujols and Mike Trout in a most fearsome lineup. Zack Greinke got $147 million to pitch for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Brothers Justin and B.J Upton wound up together in Atlanta’s outfield. Kyle Lohse signed with Milwaukee a week before the opener.
The Toronto Blue Jays, out of the postseason since winning their second straight title in 1993, made the boldest moves. They traded for reigning Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle and signed Melky Cabrera.
“Talent alone doesn’t win,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons cautioned.
Especially if stars are sidelined.
New Mets captain David Wright, Hanley Ramirez and Mark Teixeira got hurt at the World Baseball Classic. Jeter, Curtis Granderson, Chase Headley and David Freese are out for opening day, the futures of Alex Rodriguez and Johan Santana are in doubt.
Several top players are on the mend, though.
All-time saves leader Mariano Rivera begins his farewell tour after missing most of last year with a knee injury. John Lackey and Victor Martinez were absent for the entire season and Jose Bautista, Troy Tulowitzki and Carl Crawford finished on the DL.
Stephen Strasburg wasn’t active at the end, either. The Washington Nationals shut down their ace so he wouldn’t pitch too many innings, and fizzled in their first playoff appearance.
No limits on Strasburg or the Nats this time around.
“I’m excited. I think everybody in the baseball world, not just us, is really excited to see him all year,” 20-year-old Washington star Bryce Harper said.
Fans in Detroit, San Francisco and St. Louis can count on seeing familiar faces for a while. As a long, long spring training wound down, Tigers ace Justin Verlander, Giants MVP Buster Posey and St. Louis star Adam Wainwright signed long-term deals.
In the meantime, teams are figuring out how to prepare for this funny season. Previously, Porter said, it was easy to plan for blocks of interleague games.
“A lot of times, a National League team would call up a DH-type guy during that segment of their schedule,” he said. “Now, that’s hard to do because you’re going to have interleague taking place the entire course of the season. It definitely changes roster construction.”
Porter already has his pitchers in the cage, working on their bunting. Too soon for Verlander and the Tigers’ staff to swing away.
“We’ll have to hit some, but it’s a Catch-22 because I don’t want Verlander breaking his finger,” Detroit manager Jim Leyland said.
As for his AL Central champions closing on the road against the Marlins, “whatever is good for baseball,” the 68-year-old Leyland said.
“We have a designated hitter in the All-Star game, instant replay. Things change and if it is good for the game, I am all for it,” he said.
The Tigers, Boston, Toronto and Seattle each play at NL parks in September, leaving them a hitter short. For that reason, Leyland suggests interleague games down the stretch should he played at AL parks.
“It’s definitely an advantage for the National League,” Leyland said. “It works out more advantageous to them. I think eventually they’ll go uniform.”
Adds Rays manager Joe Maddon: “It’s going to be clunky at the end.”
Baltimore doesn’t play its first NL road games until Memorial Day, but has eight straight out West in August. Orioles catcher Matt Wieters figures he’ll spend more time “going over scouting reports on new hitters we haven’t seen.”
St. Louis doesn’t see an AL opponent until it plays Kansas City in late May. But the Royals go to Philadelphia and Atlanta in the first 2½ weeks.
When interleague play started in 1997, Cardinals pitcher Jake Westbrook said, “it was something new and it seemed odd to a lot of people. The DH, same thing with that longer ago.”
“The idea of interleague play most every day, this is something else new. That’s always been a question with interleague play — it’s unbalanced, who plays who,” he said.
Baker is hoping for an early edge when Pujols arrives.
“In the case of us playing the Angels, does Albert not play? Does he DH? I wouldn’t mind if Albert just spectated,” he said. “He’d be a mean pinch hitter. He’s probably greasing his glove right now.”
Later that week, Phillies great Mike Schmidt will test his arm. He was the MVP of the 1980 World Series when Philadelphia beat George Brett and the Royals — the Hall of Famers are set to throw out the first balls when Kansas City visits Citizens Bank Park for the first time since 2004.
“Playing your home opener against an AL team is weird,” Schmidt said. “Where’s the charm in that?”
Also this season:
— Along with Porter and Gibbons, the new managers are Terry Francona in Cleveland, John Farrell in Boston, Mike Redmond in Miami and Walt Weiss in Colorado.
— Major League Baseball didn’t expand replay this year. Tags, plays at first base, traps — no consensus yet on what to review or how to do it.
— The Mets host the All-Star game at Citi Field on July 16. It’s been a while since the showcase was held in Queens — Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays got top billing at Shea Stadium in 1964.
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