When Jeff Samardzija throws the first pitch for the Cubs in their Friday afternoon game against the White Sox at Wrigley Field, it will signify a powerful and memorable moment for Major League Baseball in 2012: the return of Interleague Play.
For the 16th consecutive season, the American League and National League will square off in regular-season games all over the country, giving fans a limited look at heated crosstown rivalries, legendary but long-dormant matchups that recall old postseason barn-burners, and strategic maneuverings that can only make an already compelling season more intriguing.
Starting on Friday with the lid-lifter on the North Side of the Windy City, Interleague Play will conduct a quick introductory foray from May 18-20 before returning to the slate from June 8-24. All in all, like last year, there will be 252 games between AL and NL clubs.
"I enjoy it," Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis said. "It mixes things up, gives you a chance to play teams and play in cities you might not get to otherwise. And you get to see some of the players, so there's fun things about mixing it up and getting to see new faces."
This year's model of Interleague Play, which will match up divisions from each league with an East vs. East, Central vs. Central and West vs. West primary configuration, will provide fans with plenty of nostalgia for old World Series.
Friday will feature Reds-Yankees and Pirates-Tigers, and other past Fall Classics will be revisited when the schedule gives us Mets-Yankees, Phillies-Orioles, Astros-White Sox, Blue Jays-Braves, Tigers-Reds and Rangers-Giants (starting June 8); Yankees-Braves, Pirates-Orioles, Tigers-Cubs (starting June 11-12); Phillies-Blue Jays, Red Sox-Cubs, Royals-Cardinals and White Sox-Dodgers (starting June 15); Cubs-White Sox, Giants-Angels, Braves-Yankees, Orioles-Mets and Dodgers-Athletics (June 18-19); and Cardinals-Royals, Giants-Athletics, Yankees-Mets, Rays-Phillies and Tigers-Pirates (starting June 22).
As is the case each year, fans will revel in the novelty and intrigue that Interleague Play brings.
Take unexpected reunions, for example. When Friday's play begins, the Red Sox will travel to Philadelphia and immediately be faced with the possibility that they'll be trying to win games in the ninth inning against Jonathan Papelbon, the man who was the closer for their World Series championship team in 2007.
"I think it's obviously going to be a little different because of his history here and how long he's been here," Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. "[It will] be a little different. But I think once game time comes down, it's still a game and you kind of forget about it."
In June, the Red Sox will play the Marlins in two series, allowing starter Josh Beckett to face the team that he came up with and helped pitch to a World Series title in 2003 before helping the Red Sox to one four years later.
Interleague Matchups to Watch
|CIN (Bronson Arroyo, 2-1) at NYY (Andy Pettitte, 0-1), 7:05 p.m. ET, Friday: Pettitte looks to bounce back from a shaky 2012 debut, and he's a good candidate, having won 18 Interleague games in his decorated career. Arroyo is no stranger to Yankee Stadium from his Red Sox days and should take to the postseason environment in this rematch of the 1976 World Series.|
|ATL (Tommy Hanson, 4-3) at TB (James Shields, 6-1), 7:10 p.m. ET, Friday: Hanson and the Braves come into this series of contenders having played themselves right back into the thick of the National League East, and the Rays have been in the mix in the AL East all year. Shields, off to a sizzling start this season, is 9-7 with a 4.30 ERA in his Interleague career.|
|STL (Jake Westbook, 4-2) at LAD (Ted Lilly, 5-0), 7:10 p.m. PT, Saturday: What better for a Saturday night in Chavez Ravine than a matchup between two division leaders? The Dodgers will be without Matt Kemp, and the Cardinals don't have Albert Pujols, but this one could be a sneaky-good pitcher's duel, with veterans Westbrook and Lilly on top of their games right now.|
|MIA (Josh Johnson, 1-3) at CLE (Derek Lowe, 6-1), 1:05 p.m. ET, Sunday: It's a rematch of the franchises that played that epic seven-game World Series 15 years ago, and both teams are playing well late. Johnson might have turned around his season with his first win in his last start, and Lowe has been a revelation for Manny Acta's Indians.|
|BAL (Wei-Yin Chen, 4-0) at WAS (Stephen Strasburg, 3-1), 1:35 p.m. ET, Sunday: An already intriguing natural rivalry which this year has turned into a matchup of two surprisingly strong teams gets even more interesting with this pitcher's duel. Chen, a rookie left-hander from Taiwan, brings an unbeaten record into the afternoon and will have to pitch to another heralded first-year player, Bryce Harper. The Nationals counter with Strasburg, who will be looking to make amends for his first loss.|
Also, the Phillies will travel to Toronto, allowing Roy Halladay to return to the city where he cut his big league teeth and won his first Cy Young Award, and Zack Greinke of the Brewers will come back to Kansas City, where he won the Cy in 2009.
And what about the great pitching duels that could materialize and eventually show up again in October when the games count for more than padding on a 162-game schedule?
Friday alone offers a showdown between two top arms from contenders in the form of Tommy Hanson of the Atlanta Braves and James Shields of the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. And in Toronto, the surprising Mets will meet the surprising Blue Jays, offering up a potential dandy between southpaws Jon Niese of New York and the Jays' Ricky Romero.
A June series in Seattle between the Dodgers and Mariners could result in a matchup between 2011 NL Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw and 2010 AL Cy Young honoree Felix Hernandez.
We'll get to see the Red Sox venture into the only Major League park approaching the age of their own when they hit Wrigley Field from June 15-17.
We'll see what Stephen Strasburg has in the tank against the powerful Yankees lineup when New York meets the Nationals in Washington in June.
And venerable left-hander Andy Pettitte will likely face Atlanta stalwart Chipper Jones when the Yankees meet the Braves and party like it's 1999.
"I love it," current Marlins and former White Sox skipper Ozzie Guillen said of the two leagues squaring off. "It's a great idea for baseball. It's something different. I think people like it. They have a lot of fun with it."
As for the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between these games and regular intraleague matchups, expect the men who share Guillen's job title to be putting in some overtime.
Rosters will have to be reworked. For example, if the Red Sox want to get David Ortiz's bat in the lineup in NL parks, Big Papi will have to dust off his big old first baseman's mitt.
NL managers are going to have to figure out who to put in at designated hitter, which could very well change what they'd normally do if that guy was one of their pinch-hitters.
If AL pitchers want to help their teams win in NL parks, they're going to have to bunt early and bunt often. But they're also going to have to occasionally swing the bat, too.
"If there's a man on, I'm bunting them unless he's on third," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "I don't like them to swing. But they're going to have to do it if the situation calls for them to swing. They have to do it."
It's so compelling that we'll have to watch.
When it's all said and done, as is the case every year, there will be some fascinating numbers to add up.
The NL will continue in its quest to "beat" the AL in a year's Interleague standings. Last year, the Senior Circuit got closer than it has in a while when the AL posted a 131-121 (.520) record in Interleague Play. It was the eighth consecutive year in which the AL posted a better record in the season series, extending its all-time lead to 1,939-1,773 (.522). But if the NL could take any consolation out of the 2011 results, it would be that it picked up three games compared to 2010, when the AL went 134-118.
The Yankees will try to improve upon their Major League-best showing in Interleague Play overall. The Bronx Bombers went 13-5 in 2011, sharing the top such season record with the Angels, and are 157-107 (.595) since Interleague Play began in 1997. The White Sox are next at 154-111 (.581), and their erstwhile left-hander, Mark Buehrle, was a big reason why. Buehrle, now with the Marlins of the NL, is the all-time leader in Interleague victories with 24.
Meanwhile, Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter holds the all-time lead with 326 hits, and his teammate, Alex Rodriguez, holds the RBI record with 198. Jim Thome holds the all-time Interleague mark for home runs with 58.
Those numbers could be in major flux this year with new rosters, new contenders and injuries having thrown many wrenches into the works. But some numbers seem to always be on the rise when it comes to Interleague Play. Those would be the ones piling up from those clicking turnstiles.
Interleague Play drew 8,468,620 fans in 2011, averaging 33,606 fans per game, and the average Interleague attendance last year was 12.1 percent higher than the season's final intraleague average of 29,985. Since its inception, Interleague Play has drawn an average of 33,285 fans per game, which is 11.8 percent higher than the intraleague average of 29,774 during the same span.
No matter how it's lined up, Interleague Play is still adored by fans, and is a healthy and an integral part of each baseball season.
"I think it's been good for baseball," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "I think it's brought a lot of excitement to cities, cities that don't normally get to see players [and] superstars. And overall, I think it's been a success."