The Week Ahead: Interleague Play heats up
Memorial Day remembrances start off drama-filled week of heated AL-NL rivals
On Memorial Day, we remember those who gave their lives to defend the United States and protect our freedoms and the things we love.
We also kick back in stadium seats and have a great time while enjoying that freedom and one of the things we love the most: baseball.
It's a rite of late spring to spend the last day of the long weekend soaking in the sun (hopefully) and watching your team win (hopefully). And while we're still nearly a week away from June, it's never too early to kick back on Monday and throughout the rest of the short work week and watch the rivalries and pennant races as they begin to percolate.
The most important part of Monday comes first. Major League Baseball will honor Memorial Day at all 15 home ballparks, with teams and fans pausing to participate in a national moment of remembrance at exactly 3 p.m. ET or in moments of silence at later games. Players will wear special digital-camouflage jerseys and caps licensed by the U.S. Marine Corps to raise funds and awareness for Welcome Back Veterans.
And then it will be time to play ball.
East Coast eyes will be affixed on the first Subway Series of 2013, with the surprising American League East-leading Yankees taking on the Mets at Citi Field. The Freeway Series will cap the night out West, with the suddenly surging Angels heading to Chavez Ravine to take on the Dodgers, who are looking to begin a winning streak of their own.
The Angels beat the Royals on Sunday and have won a season-high eight games in a row. They appear to finally be playing the baseball many pundits expected them to play when they added Josh Hamilton to an already-potent offensive mix that included Albert Pujols and Mike Trout.
"We're hitting as a team right now," Angels outfielder J.B. Shuck said. "We're having fun. You can see it. Everybody is loose and we're putting some wins together."
But when it comes to the pennant races, there are more intriguing matchups on tap for Memorial Day.
The Orioles and Nationals will meet in our nation's capital, and they will each look to continue climbs back toward the top of their divisions. Both teams made the postseason last year and both are hanging around, but they haven't hit on a sustained, momentum-building hot streak. It might be tough for Baltimore after watching Toronto walk off on Sunday with a four-run rally in the ninth inning to win, 6-5. It might be easier for Washington after riding ace Stephen Strasburg's eight innings to a victory over Philadelphia on Sunday afternoon.
Then again, momentum in baseball is as important, as, well, in this case, the O's Jason Hammel vs. the Nats' Gio Gonzalez.
"It's just a matter of time until the guys start swinging the bats, until everything starts clicking," Gonzalez said. "I think that sometimes it gets to a point where you just remember that all this is a team thing. Individual things are nice, but at the end of the day, we're all looking at one thing: how to win the game. So when I got out there and pitch, I try to keep my team in the game as long as possible and give them a chance to win."
Elsewhere, things are looking up for the Indians and Reds as they meet in the first installment of the 2013 iteration of the battle for the Ohio Cup.
Cleveland has been a focused, resilient group of late, but Sunday's loss, in which it dropped a series in Boston and lost closer Chris Perez to a shoulder injury late in the game, had to hurt. The Tribe is still in the thick of the AL Central, though, and now the club will head downstate to Great American Ball Park, where Dusty Baker's boys are 18-7 this season.
Baker sees plenty to like in the upstart Indians, with former Red Sox skipper Terry Francona at the helm.
"They're believing in themselves in now," Baker said. "You always notice that a new manager usually gets the best out of everybody. You got a change of attitude, change of scenery and they've got a very good manager."
Another Midwest barnburner is in the offing, with the Cardinals and Royals resuming their yearly I-70 Series drama. Monday's might be the best pitching matchup in baseball, with unquestioned aces Adam Wainwright and James Shields toeing the respective slabs for St. Louis and Kansas City.
In Detroit, Justin Verlander of the Tigers will attempt to get back on track against the scorching Pittsburgh Pirates, who won again on Sunday and are tied for second with the Reds in the National League Central, with 31-19 overall records and only 1 1/3 games behind the division-leading Cardinals.
The Pirates will start Francisco Liriano, meaning both starters in this game are authors of Major League no-hitters (Verlander in 2007 and '11, Liriano for the Twins in 2011). Another milestone could come in the form of Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter's 300th career home run. He belted No. 299 on Sunday.
If it's veteran big league pitching you're most interested in watching, you won't want to miss the Braves-Blue Jays game from Rogers Centre on Monday.
Not only is Atlanta among the hottest teams in baseball -- the Braves have won eight of their last 10 and lead the NL East -- but Memorial Day starter Tim Hudson, has 201 career wins, and his Toronto adversary, Mark Buehrle, has 175.
The Blue Jays will be looking to turn their incredible Sunday comeback victory into another week's worth of winning on their way back from a disappointing beginning to the season (they're now 21-29) following a serious offseason roster overhaul.
At the top of the AL, and the Major Leagues, when it comes to wins and losses, sit the Texas Rangers, a model of modern consistency. Texas keeps winning despite losing Hamilton over the winter, and now the club is doing it with MLB.com's top prospect, infielder Jurickson Profar, sitting in at second base for injured Ian Kinsler. The Rangers will meet up with the D-backs in the Arizona desert for a Memorial Day twin bill.
Other good rivalries that take place this week include the Cubs and White Sox facing off in the Windy City series, and the Bay Bridge Series opener, with the defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants trying to get their mojo back against the Oakland A's, postseason veterans from 2012 who weathered a recent slump to get back over the .500 mark and are on a current three-game winning streak.
"I've often said that people in the Bay Area, it's an exciting time in the baseball season for them, because everyone's watching," A's manager Bob Melvin said. "You can say all you want -- that it's just another team, another four games, and it is another team and another four games -- but in the Bay Area, it takes on more importance than that. Everyone's watching. Stands are packed, whether it's our place or their place. It's a raucous crowd, our side and their side. It's kind of cool."
Back in Boston, Red Sox Nation might very well play it cool upon the arrival of an old friend -- Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon, who will make his first appearance at Fenway Park in a visiting uniform since leaving Boston for Philadelphia in 2011.
That return the rest of the storylines in baseball should be more than enough to pay attention to during what should be a memorable Memorial Day week.