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Interleague Play a rousing success

Interleague Play a rousing success

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It began as an experiment in 1997 when Darren Oliver of the Rangers threw the first Interleague pitch against the San Francisco Giants.

Sunday night at Yankee Stadium, a ninth year of Interleague Play came to a dramatic close when Jason Giambi smashed a walk-off single off Braden Looper to the gap in right to beat the crosstown Mets.

"We needed that one, big-time," Giambi said as the roller-coaster Yankees avoided the indignity of a Subway Series sweep.

When Interleague Play celebrates its 10th anniversary next season, "big-time" will be used by many to describe that part of the schedule. A generation has now grown up with this format as a fact of life, and this latest round was the third of three stretches as Major League Baseball concluded an experiment within the "experiment."

Interleague Play 2005 began with a weekend of regional rivalries, came back later for a second stretch loaded with unprecedented pairings and wild World Series rematches and finished with those same regional rivalries on opposite turf. The final three-day weekend drew 1,686,363 fans, an average of 37,475 for 45 shouts of "Play Ball." That includes a huge three-day turnout in St. Louis for the lone intraleague series, which drew the Pittsburgh Pirates to Busch Stadium.

A total of 8,312,211 fans attended this season's Interleague games, which covered 252 dates. Overall, Major League Baseball has drawn 33,751,922 fans this season, a 1.9 percent increase over the same date in the record-setting 2004 season, when a total of 73,022,969 fans attended games.

Since its inception in 1997, Interleague Play has averaged 32,693 fans per game, a 13.3 percent increase over intraleague games. In intraleague contests, the average has been 28,858 fans per game.

Although it was a 7-7 split between the leagues on the final Sunday, it should be noted that the American League took a collective 136-116 series victory over the National League in this year's action. Chalk up much of that to the Cleveland Indians, who went 15-3 (matching Tampa Bay's 2004 record) and closed it out with their 17th comeback victory of the season on Sunday in completing a series victory over Cincinnati in the "Showdown for Ohio" at Jacobs Field.

The Indians are 39-34 and still 10 1/2 games behind the first-place White Sox in the AL Central, but C.C. Sabathia, who started and had a no-decision Sunday, said, "That's all we talk about, is catching the White Sox."

The Mets and Yankees had just set the Shea Stadium record for a three-day crowd total when the clubs met there in the first round of Interleague Play, and a third straight packed house in the Bronx was mostly hoping to see the Yankees avoid the sweep. The Bombers did that, leaving the Mets 5-10 in this Interleague season and still at the bottom of the NL East. The Yankees finished a respectable 11-7 in Interleague competition.

The finale helped the Yankees keep pace with a Boston club that suddenly is screaming the way it did last last October. The Red Sox just finished their first unbeaten road trip of six games or more for the first time since 1977, and they finished Interleague Play with a 12-6 record after dusting Philadelphia. Boston has won seven in a row and is 2 1/2 games up in the AL East on Baltimore, which now plays the Yankees.

In Los Angeles, the Angels' sweep of the Dodgers this past weekend was a symbolic end to both teams' Interleague fortunes. The Angels, now riding a season-high six-game winning streak with a season-best 6 1/2-game lead on Texas in the AL West, went 12-6 against the NL. The Dodgers went 5-13 against the AL and are now in third place in the NL West, 6 1/2 behind San Diego.

"This series, even though we swept the Dodgers, any of the games could've gone either way," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "They had three good arms out there and they pitched well, and I think that's one thing that's encouraging, that we beat some good pitching."

It was not surprising to see three monster crowds in Anaheim, but one decidedly impressive sight on the weekend was the scene in Oakland. An A's team that has had a mostly disappointing first half of the season drew three huge crowds to the Coliseum and swept the Giants in the Bay Bridge Series. And the A's finished in classic style, pummeling their rivals with a 16-0 victory that featured a season-best 24 hits and a one-hit masterpiece by Rich Harden.

"It was just one of those days for us," said Nick Swisher, who homered twice for Oakland and tied his career high with four RBIs. "They don't happen very often. ... I'm excited, but not for me. I'm excited for the team, for the way we've been playing."

Cubs fans have to be excited with the way Interleague Play ended. Mark Prior pitched for the first time since May 27 and held the White Sox to one hit over six scoreless innings to outduel Jon Garland and help the North Siders win that Crosstown Series with a 2-0 finale at U.S. Cellular Field. It is now becoming tradition for Prior to come off the DL and deal against a guaranteed victim; he has not allowed an earned run in that first-game-back situation.

The Cubs improved to 6-9 against the AL and are 8 1/2 behind St. Louis in the NL Central. With Prior apparently fully recovered from that shot he took off the elbow in May, and with Kerry Wood coming back to the roster Wednesday, Cubs fans have to feel better about the prospects for the rest of this summer.

"Our guys are capable," Cubs outfielder Jeromy Burnitz said. "We know Prior is capable; we know Wood is capable. We need them to participate. We've been saying that since the beginning."

Despite the series loss, the White Sox finished Interleague Play with a 12-6 record and still have a whopping 9 1/2-game lead on Minnesota in the AL Central. The crowd of 39,143 -- the fifth sellout there this season -- also pushed the White Sox attendance to 1,003,900, their fifth-fastest move past 1 million in franchise history.

In Houston, a third consecutive sellout crowd saw the Astros win the weekend series against the Rangers. Probably the best thing about the 10-inning, 4-3 victory from Houston's perspective was the sight of Andy Pettitte pitching nine innings and hurling 120 pitches -- the most of his Astros career. Pettitte missed most of last season with the arm injury and seems to be fully rounding into his former Yankee form.

"Andy has, over the last couple outings, really turned a corner," Houston catcher Brad Ausmus said. "He skipped a start a little over a month ago when we were in Chicago, and ever since then, he's just really turned into the Andy Pettitte that everyone has watched do so well in the past and in the postseason."

It was a big weekend in Atlanta, where the Braves swept the Orioles as Andruw Jones took his Major League-leading home run total to 24 and played some glistening center field. The Braves are now three games behind the stunning Nationals on this quest to make it 14 consecutive division titles. Meanwhile, the Orioles still have this decided Interleague bugaboo to figure out in the future. They entered 2005 with the worst all-time Interleague record, and they finished it 8-10 and were bumped out of the AL East lead they had held for most of the season.

"There is nothing we can do but try to play hard," Orioles shortstop Miguel Tejada said. "We're struggling right now. Every day we've got to go and think like winners."

Now they need a win against the Yankees "big-time" as baseball returns to intraleague play. Another year of the "experiment" is in the books, and it looks like it's going to be around for a while.

Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. Team reporters Alyson Footer, Justice B. Hill, Carrie Muskat, Mark Thoma, Mychael Urban and Gary Washburn contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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