Interleague Round 1 goes to the AL

Hope you enjoyed the first weekend of interleague play. You won’t see another quite like it.

The Houston Astros will join the American League next year, remember? The leagues will balance at 15 teams apiece, making interleague play a scheduling staple from start to finish. Opening Day? At least one interleague matchup. Game 162? At least one interleague matchup.

Judging by the weekend attendance figures, that won’t be a hard sell to fans. Sunday’s average interleague crowd was 36,211 — a gain of more than 700 per game from the previous week, when the schedule was entirely intraleague.

The Toronto Blue Jays and Washington Nationals, who normally draw in the mid-20,000s, reported Sunday crowds of more than 41,000. Only two games had fewer than 33,000 witnesses. (One was at Cleveland’s Progressive Field, as Chris Perez could have told you.)

The commissioner’s office announced Monday that the past three days accounted for the sport’s best-attended pre-Memorial Day weekend ever, at 1,652,935 fans.

Clearly, the paying customers like interleague play. Next year they will have more. That’s good for the sport.

But in 2012, for one last time, the mid-May weekend was what it has been for nearly two decades: a first-lap marker for baseball’s annual mile and a convenient (if premature) method of comparing the leagues.

That in mind, here were my observations from three days of awkward bunt attempts for American League pitchers.

1. The American League East, led by the B-A-L-T-I-M-O-R-E O-R-I-O-L-E-S, remains the heavyweight champion of baseball divisions.

With all due respect to the defending champion Cardinals, the AL is baseball’s superior league. A 24-18 weekend record, even though the Yankees, Rays and Angels lost series, is the latest evidence.

More to the point, the Baltimore True Believers have seen substantial growth among their membership rolls. And I’m about to submit my application.

Don’t be too distracted by Sunday’s loss to Washington in which Stephen Strasburg homered. (He is, after all, a .375 hitter.) The Orioles had won five straight before the 9-3 loss, starting with a two-game series split against the Yankees. Buck Showalter’s charges are roughly 25 percent of the way through their AL East games, and have a 13-7 record to show for it.

Statistically speaking, this isn’t a fluke. Baltimore has the AL’s second-lowest team ERA (3.48), to go with an offense that has ranked among the majors’ top five in OPS. Adam Jones, still just 26, appears headed for his first 30-homer season. If the question is whether the Orioles can compete in August and September, the answer is yes.

As June 1 approaches, we can begin putting credence in the standings. And the Orioles have the best record in the American League.

Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Rays have continued winning without Evan Longoria, the Toronto Blue Jays’ pitching rotation has arrived one year early, and something tells me the Yankees and Red Sox won’t finish fourth and fifth, no matter how the standings look right now. The division is as rugged as it’s ever been.

2. It wasn’t all Mickey Hatcher’s fault.

The Angels are 2-3 in the Jim Eppard Era. They went 1 for 14 with men in scoring position during a 13-inning loss Sunday. So maybe Hatcher, sacked as hitting coach last week, wasn’t the issue.

This team’s problems go far deeper than the quality of video analysis and cage work. The Angels just lost two straight games to the San Diego Padres, the second-worst team in the National League, by identical 3-2 scores.

Albert Pujols is hitting .211. Torii Hunter is on the restricted list following his son’s arrest. Vernon Wells just injured his right thumb. Dan Haren (1-5, 4.37 ERA) no longer looks like an ace.

The Angels have won consecutive games only once since completing a three-game winning streak two weeks ago. They need to do much better if they wish to eclipse the Texas Rangers in the AL West — or become credible wild-card contenders.

3. Josh Johnson reassured his team’s fans. Tim Lincecum didn’t.

Sunday’s pitching form had a peculiar look: Miami’s Josh Johnson at 1-3 with a 5.36 ERA entering his start in Cleveland, Tim Lincecum even worse (2-3, 5.77) as he prepared to face the A’s at home.

Johnson (seven innings, one earned run) turned in his best statistical start of the season in a victory. Lincecum didn’t. Not even close.

Lincecum lasted only four innings. He allowed four earned runs. His ERA jumped to 6.04. All of that happened against an Oakland lineup that has scored the fewest runs in the AL. One observer at Sunday’s start noted that Lincecum topped out at 91 mph and threw an inordinate number of changeups, looking nothing like the Cy Young winner he once was.

Lincecum has one quality start among nine outings. One theory is that Lincecum has developed a mechanical flaw in his delivery because he’s pitching at a lower weight than he was last year; that seems logical, given the many moving parts in his throwing motion. But if the fix were easy, he and the Giants would have made it by now. The signs of a recovery are not there. It’s enough to make you wonder if the Giants should have traded him during the offseason.

4. Chris Perez speaks the truth.

Was it wise for Perez, the Cleveland closer, to publicly take issue with the booing and lack of attendance from Indians fans? Maybe not. But there is a lesson for the organization in what he said.

By invoking Carlos Beltran’s decision to sign with the Cardinals instead of the Indians, Perez turned a spotlight on how major leaguers perceive the team and city.

Teams don’t need to carry $150 million payrolls in order to win the World Series. But it helps if they can attract the few outside players they really need if they want to win a title. Beltran could have been that player for Cleveland, but he was going to pick St. Louis if all things were equal — partially because the Cardinals just won the World Series, but also because perception often is reality for free agents.

Players talk. They know which teams will spend what is necessary to win, and they know which teams adhere to strict budgets because their financial well-being depends on it. The Indians fit the latter category. They have been able to sign Carlos Santana and Asdrubal Cabrera to contract extensions, but how good would they be if they had convinced CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee to do the same? The Indians wouldn’t spend the money to make that happen, whereas the Cardinals won in part because Matt Holliday ($120 million) played left field.

Perez’s comments had a lot to do with the issue of money, if only indirectly. The reality is that the Indians, as presently constituted, will need to spend more money and attract more stars if they want to be viewed as serious World Series contenders.

5. The Tigers look awfully mediocre.

The Tigers fooled a lot of us. The beginning of spring training, the end of spring training, midway through April — at all of those junctures, they appeared to be the clearest division favorite in all of baseball.

No more. Detroit is 20-21 entering the final days of May, third in the still-winnable AL Central.

At the risk of oversimplifying matters, the Tigers have yet to show that they can excel in any facet of the game. Despite featuring Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, their lineup ranked tied for seventh in runs scored among the 14 AL teams entering Sunday. The rotation? Fifth. The bullpen? Last. It adds up to an ordinary team, for which a .500 record sounds about right.

The bullpen has regressed and still needs fixing, because Jose Valverde isn’t near the closer he was in 2011. But in a narrow series win over the Pirates, the Tigers’ rotation demonstrated that it could become their competitive advantage.

Justin Verlander came within two outs of his third career no-hitter in Friday’s opener, and Max Scherzer on Sunday became the first pitcher since Mike Scott in 1990 to record 15 strikeouts, all swinging, according to STATS LLC.

The inconsistency of Scherzer and fellow starter Rick Porcello has been one pockmark on Detroit’s season. If the two of them make lasting improvements, the Tigers will start to look like the team they were supposed to be.