Bucs hoping Interleague is again springboard

Bucs hoping Interleague is again springboard

Bucs hoping Interleague is again springboard
Interleague Play is a perennial challenge for National League clubs, regularly handed their lunch by their American League counterparts. The biggest difference is in the depth of the lineups, one not made up by NL teams' ability to use an otherwise utility player as the DH in AL parks.

So it will be a particular calling-out for the Pirates, whose pitching has kept afloat an offensively weak club. With not even many regulars hitting their stride, Clint Hurdle can't get too excited by the opportunity to bolster his lineup with one of the sub-.200 guys on the bench when the Bucs kick off their 2012 Interleague season on Friday in Detroit.

Yet, the Pirates dive into Interleague business bravely, even eagerly, for a couple of solid reasons. Pitching is still the game's great definer, and even against the tough early-season schedule, the Bucs' staff has outdone every single AL club, not just those on their slate. And rather than be defrauded by their Interleague foes a year ago, the Bucs actually made their move against them.

2012 INTERLEAGUE PLAY PREVIEW
Watch all the Interleague action on MLB.TV
All-time club Interleague records
All-time Interleague leaderboard

Pittsburgh reposed in fourth place, four games out in the NL Central entering Interleague Play last May 20. The Bucs exited on June 30 in third place and two games out. Their 8-7 record matched the Cardinals for the division's best, while the other four teams were a combined 21-42.

This summer's Interleague schedule is more AL Central-heavy. As last year, the Pirates will again meet the Indians and the Tigers, but the slate also includes every other AL Central team save the White Sox. The intriguing Orioles, sitting atop the AL East, are also back on the schedule.

Cleveland is still considered Pittsburgh's regional rival. In perhaps the schedule's cruelest twist, the Bucs must again visit Progressive Field, where they got swept last season.

Playing in Detroit, Hurdle won't have to choose between first basemen Casey McGehee and Garrett Jones. The lefty-hitting Jones is the obvious candidate to DH against right-handers on Friday (Justin Verlander) and Sunday (Max Scherzer); against southpaw Drew Smyly, Josh Harrison will likely get the Saturday nod.

A very interesting part of the Pirates' identity is the inclusion in their rotation of two pitching giants of Interleague Play. However, both A.J. Burnett (18-11, six complete games) and Erik Bedard (1.82 ERA) crafted most of those numbers while in the AL pitching against the NL.

Players to watch
A.J. Burnett, RHP (18-11, 3.70 ERA): His Interleague record might mislead, since he's now switched league sides, but he also has a cumulative lifetime record of 27-19 against the five AL teams on the Bucs schedule.
Jeff Karstens, RHP (4-0, 3.00 ERA): The Bucs will want to make sure his shoulder inflammation subsides in time to activate him for the second, longer round of Interleague Play; went 3-0 last year with an opponents average of .198.
Clint Barmes, SS (.298, 5 HRs, 31 RBIs):: Could be the jump-start his bats needs -- except, he is 1-for-15 against Detroit pitching.
Garrett Jones, 1B-DH (.306, 3 HRs, 18 RBIs): Has been especially productive against the AL Central, with a .312 average.

Last year: Other than the sweep in Cleveland, the Bucs won their other four Interleague series, taking two out of three from Baltimore, Boston, Detroit and Toronto. Each game of the late-June PNC Park series against the Red Sox sold out, the start of the franchise-record streak of four consecutive sellouts.

All-time: That 8-7 mark last year matched the club's best in Interleague Play and, oddly, followed one of the poorest. In both 2010 and 2006, the Bucs went 3-12. Percentage-wise, only the two wins in 12 games in 2004 were worse. Overall, the club is 81-130 in Interleague Play.

at Tigers, May 18-20: Start of the only home-and-home Interleague series on the docket. The Tigers will visit PNC Park on June 22-24, Detroit skipper Jim Leyland's next homecoming.

vs. Royals, June 8-10: The teams were annual foes at the outset of Interleague Play, but the Royals will be making only their second PNC Park visit since 2001.

at Orioles, June 12-14: The Bucs will be making only their second stop at Camden Yards, having dropped two of three in 2008. Bedard won his only reunion with the Birds, and Burnett is 12-6 lifetime against them.

at Indians, June 15-17: Compared to their 9-3 home mark against the Tribe, the Bucs have lost 12 of 18 in Cleveland, so this could be a major stumbling block. Last season, they managed only four runs in the three games.

vs. Twins, June 19-21: The only previous time Minnesota came to Pittsburgh (2006), the Twins swept the Bucs. But this is a team quite removed from that AL Central dynasty. M&M vs. B&B -- Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer have hit a combined .368 (32-for-87) against the two AL vets in the Bucs' rotation, Burnett and Bedard.

vs. Tigers, June 22-24: In the rematch, at least the Bucs get Prince Fielder on their home turf, where he hit only .196 in his last two seasons with the Brewers.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.