Interleague ineptitude haunts Dodgers
LOS ANGELES -- The fact they play in the National League is about the best thing the Los Angeles Dodgers have going for them over the next three days.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Mark J. TerrillLike Erick Aybar's force out of Chad Billingsley, the Angels came out on top against the Dodgers.
The NL, after all, has two more teams than the American League, meaning that even during interleague play, there are always two NL teams that have to play each other to balance the schedule.
Beginning Tuesday, when they begin a three-game series with the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park, the Dodgers are fortunate enough to be one of those teams.
For much of the rest of the month of June -- in just about any year, it seems -- the fact the Dodgers play in the NL is about the worst thing they have going for them.
Interleague play has never been kind to the Dodgers. And given that it takes place primarily in June, well, neither has June.
Fresh off another humiliation at the hands of the neighboring Los Angeles Angels, who swept them in a three-game series over the weekend at Dodger Stadium, the previously sizzling Dodgers can be forgiven if they are starting to develop an inferiority complex. They are now 101-114 in interleague play since the concept was introduced in 1997. And they are 33-44 during that time against the Angels, a team they have to play three more times next week at Angel Stadium.
It brings to mind the old Jerry Seinfeld routine about how sports fans really just root for the clothing. Because no matter which Dodgers and Angels are involved, for whatever reason, the result always seems to be the same. It could be as simple as that the Angels are a better team. It could be that the Angels come from the bigger, badder AL, where you have to be a better team in order to survive, much less to make annual trips to the postseason as they do. It could be the Dodgers are intimidated by the Angels before they ever take the field against them.
Whatever the reason, no one seems to be able to identify it. And if you ask them, their response usually is to pretend it doesn't exist.
"They lost four games in interleague last year, and we beat them three times," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "We split the season series with them last year. I think it's just a matter of how you're playing when you go into these series."
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Indeed, the Dodgers went 3-3 against the Angels last season. But such moral victories -- as was the fact the Dodgers broke even at 9-9 in interleague play last year -- are another indication of just how lopsided this rivalry has become and how inept the Dodgers have been against all AL opponents.
The Dodgers haven't had a winning record in interleague play since 2004, when they went a middling 10-8. That also was the last time they played an interleague schedule as daunting as this year's. It included a three-game series in Boston, just like the one the Dodgers will play starting Friday, and a three-game home series with the New York Yankees, just like the one the Dodgers will play starting June 25. The Dodgers really hit the skids from 2005-2006, when they went 1-17 in interleague road games.
Their interleague performance has gotten only marginally better in recent years, and it is the biggest reason why they have performed so poorly overall in June. During the past six seasons, when the Dodgers won three division titles and reached the playoffs four times, they went 73-87 in June. Their only winning June during that time was last year, when they went a less-than-eye-popping 14-12.
This year, the Dodgers got a head start on June, going 7-2, moving into first place in the NL West and claiming the best record in the NL before the Angels came to town. So Torre's reasoning that it all depends on how much momentum you take into interleague play doesn't hold water in this case. But the schedule for the rest of the month is treacherous. And just like in previous seasons, there figures to be a collective sigh of relief when the Dodgers can cross that final interleague game off their schedule and return to the more familiar surroundings -- and more familiar opponents -- of the NL.
"I don't see any difference [in interleague play] other than the fact you don't know the other team very well," Torre said.
But that rationale is hard to swallow where the Angels are concerned because the Dodgers play them as many times (six) as they play most of the NL teams outside the West.
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Some of the Dodgers' shortcomings affect the NL as a whole. The AL has long dominated not only interleague play, but also the All-Star Game, which the NL hasn't won since 1996, and the World Series, which was won by an NL team just nine times in the last 27 years.
However, the early returns on interleague play this year show a little more balance: Through Sunday, the two leagues had split the first 72 games (36-36). And even the Dodgers managed to win two of three from a pretty good Detroit Tigers team during the first weekend of interleague play back in May.
The Dodgers catch a break in that they have only 15 interleague games this season instead of the usual 18. Even better for them, only six of those games are in AL parks, where the home teams presumably have a huge advantage because they employ a full-time designated hitter. National League teams usually fill that spot with a bench player who isn't good enough to play every day. But in the Dodgers' case, Torre has said Manny Ramirez will be the DH for those games, so at least the Dodgers will be better defensively because either Reed Johnson or Garret Anderson will be playing left field.
But as the Dodgers head to Cincinnati this week, they do so with the bitter aftertaste of having been dominated once again by the Angels in a series in which the Dodgers often appeared to be frustrated to the point of listlessness. Unless they can turn that around in the nine games they have remaining with the Red Sox, Angels and Yankees, the Dodgers will once again be all-too-relieved to get to the end of their interleague schedule so they can focus on their goal of returning to the playoffs.
But if they manage to get all the way to the World Series, well, what do you think they're going to run into when they get there? They will have to find some way to win four out of seven games against what presumably would be the best team from what unquestionably is the better league.
Of course, that wouldn't seem nearly as difficult to fathom if the Dodgers were to prove over the next couple of weeks that they can hold their own -- and maybe win a series or two along the way -- against three of the most talented teams the AL has to throw at them.Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
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