Tonight the Detroit Tigers and Los Angeles Dodgers will renew interleague play as they face off at Comerica Park in the first of a short two-game series.
Interleague play is now the norm rather than the novelty it was when Major League Baseball introduced it 17 years ago in 1997. With an uneven number of teams in both the National League and American League (15 each), there has to be an interleague game almost every day of the season. With only a handful of teams having “natural” rivalries with a team in the other league, many interleague games can be hum-drum. The Tigers, for example, don’t have a natural NL rival. They have been assigned the Pittsburgh Pirates as their rival, though the two teams haven’t battled in the World Series since William H. Taft was president, Ty Cobb was prowling the base paths, and Los Angeles was a minor league city.
Each season the Tigers and the four other teams in the AL Central play an NL division in a series of interleague games. This year it’s the NL West, one of the most top-heavy in baseball, with the Dodgers and San Francisco Giants each in playoff position if the season ended today.
The Tigers have had success in interleague play: they boast a .541 winning percentage against the NL (164-139). But the Tigs have been even better in their recent interleague clashes. Since 2006, Detroit has a 94-53 mark against NL foes (that’s a .639 win percentage), the best record in baseball in interleague play over that stretch.
One of the big reasons the Tigers have performed so well over the last few years against NL teams is Justin Verlander.
Verlander is 22-2 with a 2.56 ERA in 29 starts against National League teams, giving him far and away the best record of any pitcher in inter-league action. In 2007, he fired a no-hitter in inter-league play against the Milwaukee Brewers. In 2013, he nearly no-hit the Pirates in a game at Comerica Park. He’s completed four of his inter-league starts, including two shutouts. Want dominance? In 196 2/3 innings of interleague play, Verlander has struck out 212 batters while walking only 65. He’s been a one-man American League wrecking crew.
Only five pitchers have won more games in inter-league play: Mark Buehrle (28), Freddy Garcia (25), CC Sabathia (24), A.J. Burnett (23), and Jamie Moyer (23). But all of them started at least 43 times against teams from the other league, and Verlander’s next start against an NL foe (tonight against the Dodgers) will be only his 30th.
Granted, 2014 Verlander is not the Justin Verlander we’ve grown accustomed to. His ERA is just below 5 runs per game and he’s striking out fewer batters and allowing more hits than at any time during his stellar career. His last three starts have been better, as he allowed 2, 3, and 2 earned runs and got his first win in more than a month last week. But if he’s going to beat the first place Dodgers, Verlander will need to be closer to the “Must See JV” he was from 2011-12 and again last year in September and October.
If Verlander can’t seem to find his groove on the mound tonight, perhaps he can use his bat. In April against the Padres in San Diego, he finally collected the first hit of his career. He liked it so much he got another single later in that game, which Detroit won 6-2.
But tonight’s game will be played under American League rules so it’s pretty certain that manager Brad Ausmus will use the designated hitter. But given Verlander’s dominance against the NL and his two hits in April, who knows?