Interleague play returns for Braves

Love it or hate it, interleague play begins Friday for the Braves at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., against the Tampa Bay Rays.

It’s hard to believe that this is the 16th season of games between the leagues. What began as a grand experiment in 1997 with the San Francisco Giants facing the Texas Rangers, the NL-AL matchups have been immensely popular with fans, especially in rivalry cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

While the Braves don’t have a true natural rival, interleague play has suited them just fine. The Braves’ all-time record against AL teams is 129-112, with many of those matchups against the Boston Red Sox, whom the Braves have played 51 times. The Braves have also enjoyed great success against the Rays, winning 15 of the 21 games played head-to-head.

That sort of luck is rare for a National League club. In fact, the AL has won the overall interleague series vs. the NL in each of the last eight years, with the worst drubbing occurring in 2006 when the Junior circuit went 154-98.

Last season, the Braves played the Angels, Rangers, Mariners, Blue Jays and Orioles, amassing a 10-5 record. This year, the Braves play the AL East again, with home-and-home dates with the Yankees, followed by Boston, Baltimore and Toronto.

I like interleague play, but only to a point. I think it’s long past time to radically change the way baseball is scheduled if MLB insists on continuing regular-season AL-NL games.  Look, the schedules are inherently unfair. Until MLB moves more toward an NBA-styled schedule, that complaint is going to be heard loudly. It makes no sense for the Braves, Phillies, Marlins and Nationals to slog through the AL East while the Cardinals, Reds, Giants and Dodgers play much lighter competition vs the AL West and Central.

To be clear, the real beauty of baseball is that any team can win on any given day. And no disrespect is intended. But shouldn’t every team play every other team at least once?  You’d have more Interleague games, yes, but you’d also accomplish two other things:  1) fairness, obviously, and 2) Fans all over baseball would be introduced to new players and new teams every other season. For me, that is how you make the game more accessible, fairer, fun and ultimately more profitable.

It’s not that hard, guys.

Now, let me step off my soapbox for a minute and tell you about the Rays.

Joe Maddon has turned a woebegone franchise into one of MLB’s models of efficiency, excitement and success. For years, the old Devil Rays were a mess, bloated payrolls filled with sluggers who couldn’t slug, and pitchers who couldn’t handle the AL East. But under GM Andrew Friedman last year, the Rays, with a mere $41 million payroll, made the playoffs for the third time in four years. (By comparison, the Yankees spent $205 million, the Red Sox $162 million). They won 17 of their last 25 games to make postseason play on the final day of the season. They win with pitching and defense.

Last year’s team allowed the fewest runs, fewest errors in the AL, and since the DH arrived in 1973, had the lowest opponents batting average at .234.

They pitch young. And very well. From June 25, 2006 until April 6, 2012, Tampa Bay had an astounding 896 consecutive games started by a pitcher under 32. (Mark Hendrickson faced the Braves in Atlanta in 2006, ironically.) During that same time frame, Tampa Bay had 764 starts in a row by a pitcher under 30. The streak ended with James Shields’ first start of the year against the Yankees. He turned 30 in December. Incredible.

Tropicana Field is a huge home-field advantage for the Rays, who boast the second-best record in MLB on their home turf. The Trop is no treat for visiting teams, with the catwalks, cowbells, ray tanks, and a very good, young, but injury-riddled team playing host. The Rays have nine men on the DL, but under Maddon, continue to soldier on.

It should be a fun series. Two clubs with terrific young talent, big arms and similar philosophies. With a series like that, even I could get used to a little more interleague action. Now … about that DH thing …

Until next time …