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Mix it up: Interleague Play offers intrigue

Mix it up: Interleague Play offers intrigue

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As teams step out of their comfort zones during Interleague Play -- which begins on Friday with several intriguing matchups -- seamless adaptation to the unfamiliar opponents becomes vital.

With some teams playing as many as 18 Interleague games and others playing 15, these contests could indeed play a role in helping to decide divisional and Wild Card races.

Some teams figure to have it tougher than others during Interleague play.

Toughest schedules
Of all the elite teams, perhaps the Angels will be the most tested in their matches with the other league. It starts this weekend when they host the Dodgers in the first leg of the annual Freeway Series. During their June slate, the Angels will play home games against the Braves and Mets. Then, they travel to Philadelphia to face yet another strong National League East team.

"The way I look at it, it's good for the game," said Angels outfielder Gary Matthews Jr. "It's become part of the game. We play the Dodgers every year, like the Mets play the Yankees and the Cubs play the White Sox, because it's good for the fans. You have to have those natural rivalries."

During their June slate, the Angels will play home games against the Braves and Mets. Then, they travel to Philadelphia against yet another strong National League East team.

"And I like the idea of rotating the divisions you face," Matthews said. "That keeps it fresh for the players. We're going to Philadelphia and Washington, two places we haven't been to, and that's great. The Mets and Braves come here, so that'll be good for all the fans those teams have out here."

There is but one potential soft spot for the Angels, and that comes when they go to Washington, D.C., to play the Nationals. They'll wrap up with a road Freeway Series at Dodger Stadium. By that time, the Angels will likely be thrilled to get back to playing the teams they know the best.

"As for the toughness of the schedule, that's just something you deal with, like everything else in the game," Matthews said. "I don't think the players think much about that. You play every game hard, the right way, so who you play doesn't really matter all that much."

As for the team that hopes to dethrone the Angels in the AL West, the Oakland Athletics also have some tough matchups against the NL, beginning with three games in Atlanta this weekend. The Diamondbacks (on the road) and Marlins -- two teams off to terrific starts -- will also be standing in the way in June. So, too, will the Phillies, who could be rounding into form by then. The easiest games the A's have in Interleague Play come in the form of six games against their Bay Area Rivals, the Giants.

"I've never really been one to get caught up in 'playing the schedule,' and I really don't think any of our players do either," said A's manager Bob Geren. "Like everything else in baseball, it all evens out in the end, and I don't think it does anyone any good to look at it and say, 'Oh, we got a raw deal,' or whatever. Just tell us when we're playing and where, and we'll show up and try to win that day. If we don't, 'Where do we go tomorrow?' We'll try to win there, too."

Which NL power has it toughest on the Interleague trail? It's probably a toss-up between the Mets and the Dodgers.

For manager Willie Randolph and his Mets, it all starts Friday night with three games in the Bronx against the Yankees. Barring a true Subway Series this October, this will mark the final time the Mets play in historic Yankee Stadium. The only letup for the Mets in terms of American League competition comes when they restart Interleague Play at home against the Rangers. But after that, the Mets have to go to Anaheim and play the always-tough Angels. Then they host the Mariners, who have underachieved early in the season but have the capability to be playing much better by the time they match up with the Mets.

And finally, the Mets get to host the Yankees in the last Shea Stadium series against their cross-city foes. If the Mets have one comforting thought entering this part of their schedule, it's the familiarity that ace Johan Santana has with the American League.

When Joe Torre managed the Yankees, he always had those six Mets matchups looming. Now he has another tough "natural rival" in his new job with the Dodgers coming in the form of six annual games against the Angels. The Dodgers start and finish their Interleague schedule with the Halos.

In between, there is a visit to Detroit against a Tigers' team that has played below its potential thus far but likely won't do so for much longer. The Indians, who came within one win of going to the World Series last year, will visit the Dodgers. The most favorable matchup for Torre's team will be three home games against the White Sox.

The defending NL East-champion Phillies start with three home games against the pitching-packed Toronto Blue Jays. Their most anticipated series will take place June 16-18, when the defending World Series champion Red Sox come to town. It doesn't get much easier when the Angels follow Boston into Philadelphia. The Phillies finish with a series in Oakland against the fast-starting A's and finally have a little bit of a letup with three games at Texas.

"Even when we play the Red Sox, I just want to pitch well and help my team win," said Phillies lefty J.C. Romero. "It would feel good to help my team get some big wins in big games. It's exciting to play in those types of games because the crowd is really pumped up. It's almost like a playoff game. I'm sure it will be exciting. But I'm not looking too far ahead."

It doesn't get much easier when the Angels follow Boston into Philadelphia. The Phillies finish with a series in Oakland against the fast-starting A's and finally have a little bit of a letup with three games at Texas.

Meanwhile, the Reds, who have been having a hard enough time beating National League teams, come out of the gate in Interleague Play by going against three of the four playoff AL representatives from last year in the Indians, Red Sox and Yankees. They also travel to Toronto against a Blue Jays team that has plenty of talent. Cincinnati finishes Interleague Play by going to Cleveland to compete in the battle for Ohio bragging rights.

Easiest schedules
In a year the Cubs are trying to snap their championship drought at an even 100 years, Interleague Play shouldn't be much of an obstacle. Though the American League East is the featured division for the Cubs, they will somehow avoid both the Red Sox and Yankees. The Cubs and Pirates are the only teams who won't be playing Interleague games this weekend.

When Chicago does open American League competition on June 13, it will be for a three-game series in Toronto. After that, they travel to Tampa Bay to play the pesky Rays. They have six games against their city rival, the White Sox, and three at home against the rebuilding Baltimore Orioles.

Perhaps the Braves' quest to win the National League East will be aided by Interleague Play. For once, they don't play the Red Sox. Instead, they will face the A's (home), Angels (road), Rangers (road), Mariners (home) and Blue Jays (road). Only the Angels really stand out among those opponents.

The Marlins have been one of the surprise teams in the game thus far, and they hope to pounce against an underwhelming American League schedule of the Royals (home), Rays (home and away), Mariners (road) and A's (road).

Mixed bag
The Red Sox welcome former fan favorite Gabe Kapler back to Fenway this weekend in a three-game series against a former AL team, the Milwaukee Brewers. It should be interesting to watch David Ortiz and Prince Fielder -- two big left-handed sluggers -- match home run swings. And Manny Ramirez might be in position to strike home run No. 500 in that series.

Sticking with the NL Central, the Red Sox will likely feel pretty confident in June when they restart Interleague Play with three games at Cincinnati. It will be the first time Boston has played in Cincy since the 1975 World Series, but these Reds are no Big Red Machine.

One of the most common Interleague opponents for the Sox over the years has been the Phillies, and that rivalry resumes in Philly on June 16-18. After that, the Red Sox have what should be a truly enticing homestand against the Cardinals and Diamondbacks. The former was last in Boston during the 2004 World Series and the latter has been arguably the best story in baseball thus far in 2008. The Red Sox complete Interleague Play with their first-ever regular season series at Houston.

Aside from six Subway Series games against the Mets, the Yankees have a fairly ordinary stack of NL opponents. After three games in Houston, the Yankees host the Padres and Reds. Then they travel to Pittsburgh to face the Pirates in a matchup that will hardly bring back memories of the 1960 World Series.

The Cardinals will be tested on the road during Interleague, as they play in Boston and Detroit. It should be far easier at home, where they play the Rays this weekend and the Royals in June.

Much like the Rockies, who gained enormous confidence last season by taking two out of three at Fenway in June, the Diamondbacks will try to do the same when they go to Boston this June. The D-backs start AL competition with three games at home against the Tigers this weekend. But before going to Boston on June 23, the Diamondbacks must figure out the nooks and crannies of the Metrodome.

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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