MINNEAPOLIS — Interleague play as baseball fans currently know it will be changing next season, and the new format is playing to mixed reviews in the Minnesota Twins’ clubhouse.
Beginning in 2013, the Houston Astros will move from the National League Central to the American League West, which means each league will have 15 teams and each division will have five teams. Given the odd number of clubs in each league, there’s no way the schedule can work to have all teams from the same league playing each other. At any given point in the season, one team from each league will be playing a team from the other league.
“Next year’s going to be a little different. I heard they’re going to spread it out all over the place,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “That just adds a lot more hitting for pitchers for us, preparing for these things, which I don’t like that. I like it in one part of the season, get it done and get it out of the way and go from there. Whatever. We can’t make the schedule. We’ve just got to play with it. We’ll just have to ad lib a little bit.”
The new changes to interleague play mean Minnesota’s pitchers will become more frequent hitters, but they also raise another question: What happens if an American League team is in the thick of a playoff race late in the season but has a handful of games on the road at National League parks in September? Is it at a disadvantage because it can’t use a designated hitter?
“You’re going to come up with some situations where you may not get to use your DH a weekend before the playoffs,” Gardenhire said. “That’s not a good situation for an American League team. Hopefully they’ll adjust as we go and get it right.”
Just like Gardenhire doesn’t enjoy watching his pitchers bat, those same pitchers don’t particularly enjoy hitting. Aside from veteran Carl Pavano, who spent eight years in the National League with Montreal and Florida, many of Minnesota’s pitchers don’t have much experience at the plate.
“I don’t like the fact that it takes away from my main focus,” right-hander Nick Blackburn said of having to hit. “It was fun the first couple years, getting out there and doing it. But now it’s just … more stuff that you have to worry about. We’re all competitive and it’s not something we get to practice a whole lot of.”
Since making his debut with the Twins in 2007, Blackburn has just 10 at-bats and only one hit, which came in 2008. He’s struck out twice in his career.
Most of Minnesota’s other pitchers have an equal lack of success at the plate. Francisco Liriano has two hits and seven strikeouts in 14 career at-bats. Left-hander Scott Diamond has his first major league at-bats this season, going 1-for-3 at Miller Park in Milwaukee. Brian Duensing, a starter-turned-reliever, is 0-for-5 lifetime at the plate. Pavano, currently on the disabled list, is a career .141 hitter in 311 at-bats with two homers and 14 RBI.
“The chances of us getting a hit — not that we’re expected to get any hits — but it still isn’t fun to get up there and look stupid. The majority of the time, that’s what happens to me,” Blackburn said. “The worst part about it is people don’t expect it, but it really does take a toll on you when you’re out there on the bases. First of all, it’s an unfamiliar territory for us, so the whole time you’re out there, you’ve got adrenaline going and you’re not sure what’s going on so your heart rate’s up. That can be somewhat exhausting, just being out there.
“Luckily, I don’t get enough hits to where it really matters.”
The Twins’ hitters seem to appreciate interleague play more than their pitcher teammates. Of course, there’s the challenge of facing pitchers in the NL they may never have faced before, but it’s also a chance to see new cities and venues.
“I enjoy going to different ballparks,” said Twins catcher Joe Mauer, who said Wrigley Field is his favorite NL park. “I know this year we’re going to Cincinnati, which I haven’t been to. It’s nice to see different places and things like that.”
Carroll, who has spent time in both leagues during his 11-year career, has played in every current ballpark except the new Marlins Park in Miami. Though he claims he doesn’t have a favorite National League park, Carroll still enjoys interleague play.
“To us, or at least to me, I think it’s kind of fun to see some teams we don’t normally don’t see, see some of the other players that you usually see on TV or read about that you’re finally playing against or facing pitchers that you never do,” Carroll said. “I think that’s the fun part of it. I think a lot of it’s for the fans to have that opportunity to see different teams come to their park or what have you. I think it keeps baseball interesting and keeps it fun for everybody involved.”
There are certainly two sides to the interleague coin. It’s exciting for fans — and players — to see new players and teams and experience ballparks. It also means hitters have to adjust to a new set of pitchers, and American League pitchers have to pick up a bat (and often look foolish doing so).
With the changes baseball will make next year, we’ll be seeing much more interleague play, for better or worse.
“It’s going to definitely be different,” Blackburn said. “It’ll be weird to be playing it all throughout the year. It might change my perspective on it, too.”