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 Interleague Play will have role in AL Central race

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PostSubject: Interleague Play will have role in AL Central race   Thu May 19, 2011 2:46 am

Interleague Play will have role in AL Central race
Tigers have used contests to get back in playoff contention
By Jason Beck / MLB.com | 05/18/11 8:09 PM ET

DETROIT -- Manager Jim Leyland has made his opinions on Interleague Play well-known. He also has said many times that the schedule is the schedule and that they have to play it. Whether Leyland likes Interleague Play or not, he's going to have to find a way to win in it.

If past history is any indication, how the Tigers fare in it will play a major role in their fate in the American League Central.

The Tigers have never owned a losing record in Interleague Play with Leyland as their manager, and they've often used that stretch to propel themselves in their own division race. That includes last year, when they made up four games in the standings by going 10-5 against the National League in June. One day after they wrapped up Interleague Play, they took over the division lead for the first time since the first week of the season.

The Tigers have never come out of Interleague Play in a worse position than they came in, at least not in June. These isolated three-game Interleague series have not been so kind; they've lost two out of three in the last three May Interleague sets since they swept the Cardinals in 2007 at Comerica Park. This is the third time in four years that the May Interleague set has come on the road.

Leyland's main issue with Interleague Play is the challenge that American League teams face when they lose the designated hitter spot. For the Tigers in particular this year, it's a huge issue -- much bigger, in fact, than anyone would've anticipated when the season began.

Detroit signed All-Star catcher Victor Martinez as a free agent last fall to provide some versatility, starting mainly at DH and a little bit at catcher to spell young Alex Avila. The expectation going into the season was that Martinez would move behind the plate for a stretch when the Tigers went to a National League city and lost the DH slot.

Martinez has hit as advertised, earning AL Player of the Week honors last week while posting a 13-game hitting streak that ended earlier this week. The problem is, Avila has been one of Detroit's better hitters so far this season, providing a left-handed power bat in the bottom third of the order while handling the pitching staff well. It's a good problem to have, but it gives Leyland a conundrum without the DH.

Martinez can also play first base, of course, but the Tigers have Miguel Cabrera over there.

"We've got to use guys six straight days without Victor Martinez or Alex Avila or somebody? That's ridiculous," Leyland groused this week.

That'll be a bigger problem in June. For this weekend, it's just three games, which Leyland admits is more reasonable.

Last year: The Tigers went 11-7 in Interleague Play in 2010, including an 8-1 homestand against the Pirates, Nationals and D-backs that helped vault Detroit back into the thick of the AL Central race in mid-June. The Tigers lost two of three on the road to the Dodgers, Mets and Braves.

All-time: The Tigers own a 134-113 all-time record in Interleague Play, including a 63-27 record since Leyland took over as manager in 2006. Add in Leyland's time in Colorado and Florida, and he's 87-46 in Interleague Play, winning nearly two out of every three Interleague games over the course of his career.

at Pirates, Friday-Sunday: Leyland returns home for the second time in three years and the third time in his six seasons managing in Detroit, while these two teams meet for the third straight season. The Tigers swept the Bucs at Comerica Park last year, but two of those games were one-run decisions.

at Rockies, June 17-19: Leyland returns to Denver for the first time since his managerial tenure with the Rockies, which ended abruptly after one season with his surprise resignation.

at Dodgers, June 20-22: The Tigers head to Dodger Stadium for a second straight year, having lost two of three there last May. It could be a return for Brad Penny to the place where he racked up back-to-back 16-win seasons from 2006-07.

vs. D-backs, June 24-26: The Tigers and D-backs are familiar foes, but it'll be moreso this year with Kirk Gibson managing Arizona and Alan Trammell as his bench coach. It's no coincidence that they'll be on hand to watch the Tigers retire the No. 11 of their former manager, Sparky Anderson.

vs. Mets, June 28-30: The Mets handed Justin Verlander just his second Interleague loss last year at Citi Field in New York, on their way to winning two out of three.

vs. Giants, July 1-3: The defending World Series champions and Tim Lincecum come to town and give Detroiters a treat for the holiday weekend. It marks just the second trip for the Giants to Comerica Park, where they took two of three in 2005, and the first return for Andres Torres since he revived his career in the Tigers organization.

Players to Watch:

Verlander, RHP (12-2, 3.43 ERA): He's still looking for his first Major League hit, but Interleague opponents bat just .232 against him. Both losses, though, have come in the last two seasons, along with an ERA over 5.00.

Cabrera, 1B (.303, 12 HR, 33 RBI): Those numbers include just his three seasons as a Tiger. Makes sense, since he still knows a lot of NL pitchers from his Florida days.

Magglio Ordonez, OF (.336, 36 HR, 148 RBI): He has 181 Interleague games on his resume, more than a full season. And with a .969 OPS, what a season at that.

Penny, RHP (8-12, 4.96 ERA): Don't focus on the Interleague numbers. Focus on the National League, where Penny owns a 101-80 record and 3.99 ERA during his time there.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.


“It takes pitching, hitting and defense. Any two can win. All three make you unbeatable.”    
–Joe Garagiola
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