Twins adjusting to early interleague play
MINNEAPOLIS — It's April 12, and the Minnesota Twins are playing the New York Mets. Something about that just doesn't seem right — aside from the snow that fell prior to Friday's game.
Just 10 games into the 2013 season, the Twins are playing in their first interleague series of the year. Thanks to the Houston Astros moving to the American League prior to this season, both leagues now have 15 teams. That means on any given night in Major League Baseball, a team from the American League and one from the National League will be playing each other.
This weekend, it happens to be the Twins and Mets.
"It's definitely different and something we haven't had to do. It's always been towards the middle of the season and you get into it," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said of the early Interleague play. "I'm glad it's at home and not on the road right now where our pitchers are having to hit. That makes it easier for us. But it definitely is a little different, which we knew was coming."
Minnesota is fortunate in that it gets to play its first two interleague series at home. The Twins welcome the Mets for a three-game series at Target Field this weekend and then host the Marlins beginning April 22 for a brief two-game stint.
Gardenhire's club won't have to play in a National League park until heading to Atlanta on May 20 for a three-game series. The Twins will then play two games in Milwaukee on May 27 and 28 before hosting the Brewers the following two days.
In years past, Minnesota and Milwaukee have played a total of six games — three at each park. Those series have developed into a good rivalry, given the natural border battle between Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Thanks to the new interleague format, though, they'll play just four games total this year.
"I'd like to play the Brewers the three and three, so we lost two games with them. That's the biggest change," Twins general manager Terry Ryan said. "It is a little early to play interleague, but we all know what happened when Houston moved. It's part of the equation on the schedule. But I did like the fact that the natural rivals, we used to play six instead of four."
Facing National League teams early in the season also throws a curveball into preparations of starting pitchers in the AL. On top of worrying about facing batters they've likely never seen before, they now must take batting practice and bother with taking their hacks in the batter's box a few times a game.
For some pitchers, having to bat is a chore. Then there are pitchers like Twins right-hander Liam Hendriks, who says he actually enjoys the chance to swing the bat once in a while. Hendriks grew up in Australia playing third base and left field and was drafted by the Angels as a left fielder.
Hendriks has just two at-bats in his young major league career and is 0-for-2 with a strikeout, but he's a proponent of the way interleague play is now set up.
"I think it's a good idea in theory, but it's always going to be tough for those American League teams that start off the season in a National League ballpark," Hendriks said. "You're asking a pitcher who's hit maybe 20 at-bats a year in a couple years to go out on Opening Day and start swinging the bat. It's going to be different for some guys, but I think the more it progresses, the better it's going to be. I think guys are going to get a little more used to it. But I like it."
Gardenhire loves the ability to use the designated hitter. He'd rather not have his pitchers hitting — and running, if they happen to get on base. Mets manager Terry Collins, on the other hand, isn't a fan of the DH. But he has to use it this weekend against the Twins.
"Our team isn't really built for the DH," Collins said Friday. "Our guys, we play both sides of the ball, so it's a little different for us to have a DH. But we'll be fine."
From start to finish this season, there will be interleague play. The Twins experienced it just 10 games into the 2013 season. In years past, they typically wouldn't have an interleague game until mid-May and they'd be done with games against the NL by late June.
"I think it's good to have it spaced all throughout the year rather than just a certain period of time," said Minnesota second baseman Brian Dozier. "It gives a new look for everybody instead of playing a lot of teams repetitively over and over and going to the same cities. It's good to throw in some teams we haven't played in years like the Mets."
Minnesota won't have to face a National League team after June 26 when the Twins play two games in Miami. Other teams will be playing NL teams in the late months of the season, when they could be in the thick of a pennant race.
With the way interleague is played now, it's the luck of the draw with the schedule. This year, Minnesota lucked out.
"There's going to be complications with it," Gardenhire said. "Teams fighting in the last month and you're going to play interleague and (you're) an American League team and your pitchers are having to hit and you have to change your whole game in September in a pennant race when you're one game behind a team or something. That can be tough."
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