O’s and Nats weigh in on interleague play as natural rivals face off this week

For the first time in its brief history, interleague play is a year-round occurrence. It used to be a novelty, but now it is a regular ho-hum thing, much like watching games on your telephone.

But when interleague play came to be in 1997, this week’s schedule is what had the baseball world excited: The unofficial “Natural Rivals” week, when the series were Angels-Dodgers, Yankees-Mets, Cubs-White Sox and Nationals-Orioles.

This year, with the leagues realigned into two 15-team leagues, every team is playing 20 interleague games, an increase of two to four each from last season. The rivals series has been cut from six to four games and they are played starting Monday, two in one city and two in the other.

Obviously, that means short travel in the Mid-Atlantic. The Orioles flew into D.C. Sunday night and will take a bus to Baltimore after Tuesday night’s game. The Nationals will stay overnight in Baltimore Wednesday. Some Orioles will drive back and forth.

Travel is even easier in places in New York and Chicago, but there are two series that have to switch time zones to fit into the new schedule. That’s why the Diamondbacks and Rangers are playing a day-night doubleheader Monday in Phoenix, so that makes Tuesday a travel day.

Some rivalries just aren’t all that natural, such as the Braves-Blue Jays and Pirates-Tigers. Given that that Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns are rivals in the NFL, the Pirates would prefer their natural rival be the Indians. But MLB likes the Indians to play the Reds for an Ohio series.

So far, the new format hasn’t created any problems, but there could be issues. No AL team likes to play three series on the road in NL parks, but that’s what the Orioles will do in August when they go to San Diego, San Francisco and Arizona. That’s a long time to go without a regular DH.

And what happens if the AL Central is on the line when the Tigers go to Miami without a DH on the final weekend of the season?

Everyone has as interesting take on interleague play. Except for the DH, it might be the most debated topic in baseball. Before the Nats-Orioles series began Monday, we talked to players from the local nines about interleague play:

* Orioles first baseman Chris Davis laughed at the question, saying he likes watching the “cocky pitchers go down on three pitches. Interleague is the great equalizer.” On a serious note, he says interleague is good because it gives teams a glimpse of NL strategy and gives players a chance to see other ballparks.

“It’s not on our schedule, but I’ve always wanted to play in Wrigley Field (in Chicago),” he said. “I’ve played in Fenway and the old Yankee Stadium, but I haven’t even driven by Wrigley.”

* Nationals outfielder Denard Span loves going to Camden Yards because he likes how the warehouse frames right field.

“It’s the trademark. Fenway has the Green Monster and Baltimore has the warehouse,” Span said. “As a kid, I remember watching Cal Ripken and seeing that brick building in the background on TV. When I saw it live for the first time, I realized how beautiful it is.”

Span’s former team, the Twins, come to D.C. in June, “but I wish we were going there to play. That would have been fun.”

* Orioles catcher Matt Wieters likes interleague’s “change of pace,” and says preparing for NL teams means, “more cram sessions.” He says there is nothing like playing games to learn an opponent: “There’s only so much you can get from video and scouting reports.”

* Washington pitcher Dan Haren played for Oakland in the A’s-Giants rivalry series. He said it was a different experience because the ballpark in Oakland was near capacity when the Giants played.

“Usually we had only a few thousands fans, but for interleague, they opened the third deck for fans, and it was a completely different atmosphere,” Haren said. “That was a big change, but it was so fun. And, because it was enclosed, the fans were loud.”

* Orioles manager Buck Showalter says the team will get pitcher Kevin Gausman an elbow pad because he will pitch Tuesday and bat in his second big league start. Gausman is a left-handed batter.

“I think he’s more excited about that than pitching,” Showalter said.

* Shortstop J.J. Hardy of the Orioles says interleague play is more for the fans.

“It doesn’t really make that much difference for the players because we just play,” he said. “You worry about pitchers getting hurt when they have to bat. I think with interleague maybe the National League should start using the DH.”

* Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche doesn’t like the addition of two-game series to a schedule that comes with interleague, but overall, he’s gotten used to interleague play. And he likes hitting in Camden Yards.

“I am not a fan of the two-game series,” he said. “They are harder on a visiting team, but they don’t matter to the home team. I like Camden Yards because it’s a good place to hit, and that’s probably the same reason pitchers don’t like it.”

* Nationals reliever Tyler Clippard says interleague play breaks up the season, and he’s excited to see the ballpark in Kansas City with the outfield water fountains.

“It’s one of three ballparks I have never seen,” he said. “The others are the Texas Rangers’ ballpark and the new Twins ballpark in Minnesota.”

* Orioles pitcher T.J. McFarland, who has never played in the majors before this season, was taking his first look at Nationals Park.

“It’s beautiful,” he said. “For me, interleague play doesn’t matter. Every time I go to a ballpark, it’s a new experience for me.”