Tigers stay closer to home this Interleague slate

Tigers stay closer to home this Interleague slate

DETROIT -- If there was ever a natural fit for the Tigers in Interleague Play, it's this year. That's the good news they face as they prepare for another stretch against the National League. They aren't natural rivalries, but they're definitely regional ones.

After Interleague Play took the Tigers to the West Coast in back-to-back years, they won't have to travel any further than Pittsburgh, Cincinnati or Chicago. They'll get their first trip to Wrigley Field in six years, their first trip to Great American Ballpark ever, and their third trip to beautiful PNC Park in four years.

After visits from teams that sometimes seemed random, they'll welcome the Pirates to town this weekend in what's becoming a regular series, and the defending World Series champion Cardinals to Comerica Park next month.

In short, they're getting the benefits of Interleague Play this season. If they can get back to the benefits they used to see in the standings from Interleague Play, then they'll really have something to welcome.

2012 INTERLEAGUE PLAY PREVIEW
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For years, Detroit got the better of the National League, and it usually served as a springboard up the AL Central standings. The 63-27 Interleague record from 2006-10 ranked among the best in baseball, and frequently ended up with the Tigers either atop the division standings or close to it by the All-Star break.

That made last season's Interleague results startling. It wasn't just the Tigers' 7-11 record, but the 33-run differential in 18 games. They averaged 6.33 runs allowed per game, with 45 runs coming in three games against the Mets and Giants. That includes the infamous 16-9 game with the Mets that included utility player Don Kelly coming in to pitch.

The Tigers are counting on better results this year, and six games against an anemic Pirates offense could do wonders for Detroit's pitching staff. But just as St. Louis defied the perceived weakness of the National League in last year's World Series, the Cards and Reds should provide a midseason test for the Tigers to see where they rank among the best teams from the other league.

The extra series against the Pirates is a change for the Tigers, the only team in the AL Central that doesn't have a "natural rival" from the NL Central. In past years, that usually left Detroit orphaned to a spare series against a random team from another division, and they still have that to some extent when the Rockies come to town in June. However, the Pirates-Tigers games have proven to be a draw in both cities, and a matchup that's been fair to both squads. They've matched up in every season since 2009.

Last year: The Tigers lost two out of three in every Interleague series but one, taking two of three from the D-backs, for a 7-11 record. The Tigers held onto their division lead despite 11-7 Interleague records from the Indians and White Sox, but it led to a shakeup in their pitching staff, immediately prompting Phil Coke's return to the bullpen and setting up the Doug Fister trade a month later to shore up the rotation.

Players to watch
Justin Verlander, RHP (15-2, 2.94 ERA): He's still looking for his first hit, but he still owns the Senior Circuit. The National League comprised three of Verlander's 24 wins last season in his MVP campaign.
Miguel Cabrera, 3B (.307, 32 HR, 91 RBIs): He hit .383 during Interleague Play last year, which vaulted him into serious contention for the AL batting title. He's just a .265 career hitter against the Pirates, but went 5-for-12 against them last year.
Prince Fielder, 1B (230 career homers with Brewers): If anybody should know NL Central pitchers, it's Fielder, who spent seven seasons against them in Milwaukee. He has more home runs against the Pirates (27) than he does against any other team.
All-time: The Tigers own a 141-124 all-time record in Interleague Play, eighth-best among AL clubs, including a 70-38 record since Jim Leyland took over as manager in 2006. Add in Leyland's time in Colorado and Florida, and he's 94-57 in Interleague Play, winning nearly two out of every three Interleague games over the course of his career.

vs. Pirates, May 18-20: The Pirates are by far the lowest-scoring team in baseball, averaging less than three runs per game. Their pitching, however, has been stingy enough to keep them close to .500 and give teams like the Tigers fits.

at Reds, June 8-10: Despite the short distance between Detroit and Cincinnati, the two teams have met only once in the last 10 years, a 2006 series at Comerica Park best known for Ken Griffey Jr.'s mammoth home run off then-rookie Joel Zumaya. Detroit has won each of their last four series since 1999.

at Cubs, June 12-14: The Tigers have swept both series with Chicago's National League team over the last 10 years. Detroit fans just about outnumbered Cubs fans the last time the Tigers played at Wrigley Field in 2006.

vs. Rockies, June 15-17: Detroit and Colorado are better known for their hockey rivalry, but this will mark their fourth baseball matchup in the last five years. The Rockies have taken two out of three in their last two meetings after the Tigers swept their series in 2008.

vs. Cardinals, June 19-21: What used to be a managerial matchup between good friends Jim Leyland and Tony La Russa now features Leyland against first-year skipper Mike Matheny. What could've been their second World Series meeting in six years had the Tigers advanced last year, is instead their first regular-season meeting since 2009.

at Pirates, June 22-24: The Tigers head to PNC Park for the third time in four years in what is becoming a regular favorite road trip for some Michiganders. Detroit lost two out of three here in 2011 and '09.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.