New challenges await as Interleague play opens
O's, Nats, Tribe to be tested; Hamilton brings show to NL parks
If it seems like barely a month of baseball is in the books, well, you're right. The season is still young, but nonetheless, Interleague Play is upon us. This weekend brings the first taste of American League vs. National League competition, with several of the regional rivalries being renewed starting Friday.
It's been an intriguing and surprising season already, with some unexpected names at the top and bottom of the standings and stat sheets. For some of those standout performers, a change of pace will undoubtedly be welcome. For some, the new challenges will make things a little more uncomfortable.
Here's a look at five storylines as Interleague play dawns for the 2012 season:
Pujols back in the NL: With no shortage of theories as to how to get Albert Pujols going, the Angels have to hope that the schedule will do the trick. One guess regarding Pujols' struggles is that the change in leagues has harmed him, what with all the unfamiliar pitchers.
Pujols has shown life in the past week, hitting in six straight games and smashing homers in his past two. The hope is that once the Angels see some National League teams, Pujols' prospects will further improve. They certainly should brighten on Friday against the Padres, when the slugger faces a familiar foe in Jeff Suppan, who has spent 10 of his 17 seasons in the NL. He's also seen Tim Stauffer a few times, and the Dodgers feature some extremely familiar opponents.
Pujols has historically been one of the best Interleague hitters, so unfamiliarity must not be that big a problem for him. But it certainly can't hurt for him to see some pitchers against whom he's had success in the past.
Another test for the O's: Playing in baseball's toughest division, the Orioles go through the wringer on a regular basis as it is. That's part of what makes their start as impressive as it is: Baltimore has already been fed a steady diet of some of the game's toughest teams, including the Yankees, Rays, Rangers, Blue Jays and Red Sox.
Now we'll get to see the Orioles face one a challenging Interleague slate to boot. They'll get six games against the Nationals and their formidable pitching, marking without a doubt the most compelling installation yet in the Beltways rivalry. The first of those matchups come this weekend at Nationals Park. Baltimore also plays Atlanta, which could be the best team in the NL, the surprising Mets, and the pitching-rich Pirates and Phillies.
If the O's are still in contention when the All-Star break rolls around, they will definitely have earned it.
Harper and Strasburg prepare for their close-ups: Baltimore isn't the only AL East team that will face the rising Nationals. Washington visits Fenway Park and the Rogers Centre, and will host the Yankees and Rays. That means Stephen Strasburg pitching against some of the game's most dangerous lineups, including at least one start against an AL East big-boy team with a designated hitter.
It also means Bryce Harper taking his hacks at Fenway, and testing his mettle against the Rays' and Yankees' pitching staffs. We know both of these guys can play, especially Strasburg, but the AL East will provide yet another intriguing measuring stick.
The Josh Hamilton Show: The last thing the Rangers' rivals want to see is for them to get any kind of a break. There's no getting around it, though: the Interleague schedule looks pretty friendly to the American League's best team. Texas draws the NL West but not the division-leading Dodgers, and no other team in that division is over .500. The Rangers also get two series against the Astros, who seem to be fading after a game start to the year.
Still, fans in three NL cities will get a chance to see Hamilton up close, and that's a good thing. It's not that his success is a surprise, but even Hamilton's biggest fans likely didn't see such an eruption coming, with him carrying a .399 average, 18 homers and 45 RBIs into the weekend, and now he gets ready to take it to the other league.
The Rangers visit Houston, San Diego and San Francisco as Hamilton continues his pursuit of a historic season. He's actually never played at AT&T Park in the regular season, and he has a mere 12 at-bats at PETCO Park, so it will be a treat for fans in those cities to see the prodigious talents of a very impressive slugger.
Cleveland's challenge: The first-place Indians have an intriguing schedule as they try to stay atop the wide-open American League Central. They open against a Marlins team that has definitely found its footing after a slow start. Then after a string of divisional matchups, the Tribe has a challenging road trip to St. Louis and Cincinnati, which appear to be separating themselves as the two best teams in the NL Central.
They even get a second series against the Reds, making for a somewhat tougher slate than, say, the Tigers have. Detroit gets Pittsburgh twice instead of Cincinnati, gets the Rockies instead of the Marlins as its non-Central opponent, and hosts the Cardinals instead of going to St. Louis. Those aren't huge differences in the course of a 162-game schedule, but in a division that could come down to the wire, they may be enough to tip the balance.
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. Paul Casella and Kristen Zimmerman contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.