Maybe This Is the Year That Interleague Play Isn’t Awful?

On Friday night, the Dodgers head to Seattle to kick off an interesting and lengthy portion of their schedule in more than one way. It’s not only the start of 15 consecutive interleague games – and more on that in a second – it’s the start of 11 consecutive series in which they need not travel further east than Phoenix. After leaving Seattle this weekend, they return home for sets against the Angels & White Sox before traveling to Oakland, Anaheim, & San Francisco. That’s followed by home dates against the Mets & Reds, a trip to Arizona, a brief interruption for the All-Star Break, and a home series each against the Padres & Phillies. It won’t be until July 20, when they head to New York to play the Mets, that the club will be forced to go on a serious road trip.

So while that’s set up well for a banged-up roster, the two-plus solid weeks of interleague play is problematic, since the Dodgers traditionally struggle against their interleague brethren. Since 1997, the only teams with a poorer winning percentage in interleague play than the .456 clip the Dodgers have played at are the Orioles, Royals, Diamondbacks, Pirates, & Padres. No surprise there – those clubs are hardly the elite group of the game, and with the exception of a bright spot or two from Arizona those teams generally lose consistently no matter what league their opponents are from.

Among the many issues for the club in that time has been their difficulty in filling out the designated hitter role. We talked about this last year, joking that the Dodgers could barely find eight MLB-quality hitters each day, much less nine:

But what about this year? Is it really a good thing for the Dodgers to have yet another bat in the lineup? Now, instead of choosing between one of Russ Mitchell or Jay Gibbons or Juan Castro or Tony Gwynn – part of a collection that Steve Dilbeck half-jokingly called one of the worst benches ever– each day, the Dodgers get the “benefit” of having multiple variations of them in at a time.

Is that really an upgrade on having the pitcher hit? Hell, Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley have each been more dangerous at the plate this year than Gibbons, Mitchell, and Castro. Hiroki Kuroda can at least lay down an excellent bunt when he’s called upon to do so, which is more than we can say for most of these other guys. I’m mostly being facetious here, but only mostly. While other NL teams are going to add another bench bat or markedly improve their defense by taking a glove away from an Aubrey Huff or Jason Giambi or Jonny Gomes, the Dodgers will have the fine pleasure of adding little to no value at all to their lineup.

Five of the nine starts in AL parks ended up going to Marcus Thames, Trent Oeltjen, & Gibbons; the Dodgers went 6-9 overall. That’s generally been the case historically for the club, as well; the two Dodgers who have made more than seven starts in the role are Olmedo Saenz, who hit just .190/.271/.286 in 18 starts, and Dave Hansen, who hit .257/.372/.343 in 11 tries.

Will this year be different? For once, the Dodgers have a roster that might be conducive to the additional spot, since Bobby Abreu & Juan Rivera are each players who you’d love to see without a glove on whenever possible; in addition, Don Mattingly says that Andre Ethier will get at least one start at DH this weekend. That should hopefully allow both more regular playing time in the outfield corners for Alex Castellanos and a way to keep regular playing time for Elian Herrera, Jerry Hairston, & Juan Uribe, once Uribe returns next week to further muddle the infield picture. (It’ll also lead to at least one game where Adam Kennedy DH’s, I can almost guarantee, which will just be infuriating.)

DH issues aside, the Dodgers are fortunate to draw Seattle & Oakland this year rather than Texas, entertaining though it may have been to see them test themselves against the best team in the AL. Then again, the Angels are playing much, much better than they had been in April and the White Sox are shocking everyone by leading the AL Central, so once again interleague play is going to present a tough challenge.

Is this finally the year that they break their usual interleague curse? So far, the 2012 edition of this team has been able to handle every other obstacle that’s been thrown in their way. If they want to prove they truly deserve the elite status that their record bestows, holding their own with the American League would be a good way to do it.