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Published: Friday, 6/17/2011

COMMENTARY

Tigers, Tribe take battle for first to NL

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

DETROIT -- The Tigers beat the Indians 6-2 yesterday to retake sole possession of first place in the AL Central Division. The weather's nice, fans are wearing shorts, pennant races are heating up, and both teams are fired up to spend the next two weeks playing the … National League?

Detroit and Cleveland won't cross paths again until Aug. 9, when they open a three-game series at Progressive Field. Who knows what the AL Central race will look like then?

Interleague baseball hasn't gotten old, but some of the matchups make little sense and the length of interruption at this particular time, with five of baseball's six divisions tightly contested, seems inopportune.

Both the Tribe and the Tigers play their next 15 scheduled games against NL opponents, although Detroit will wedge a makeup game against Toronto into the midst of it.

"The Indians are right on our tail, the White Sox are in the rearview mirror, and the Twins are coming on like gangbusters," Detroit manager Jim Leyland said. "So now we'll go play some tough NL teams. That's the way it is. This is what we do. We play 162 games, we go where they tell us, and next up is Colorado and Los Angeles."

After three-game sets in both places, the Tigers will return to Comerica Park for series against Arizona, the New York Mets, and San Francisco.

For the Tribe, it begins with a series at home against Pittsburgh and ends with a road trip to Cincinnati, and both make perfect sense in terms of rivalries. In between, the Tribe meets Colorado, San Francisco, and Arizona. Go figure.

Who they play is secondary to where they play, according to the managers, and that has everything to do with the designated hitter, or lack of the same.

The Tigers go on the road for the first six games. The Indians are at home for six, and then hit the road for nine straight.

Or, as manager Manny Acta likes to say, "NINE straight." He fairly yells it to make his point.

"American League teams are built around the DH, so it's not nice to make an AL team go on the road for interleague play and lose him for NINE straight games … not three games, NINE."

The debate about the designated hitter has been around, in either lower or UPPER case, for nearly four decades, since the AL went that route in 1973 and the National League stayed old school with pitchers taking their turns in the batter's box.

Interleague play is just one instance when the difference in rules makes the DH a thorny issue. Depending on who is the home team, an All-Star Game or, far more importantly, a World Series game can be affected.

Leyland, who has managed in both leagues, is tired of the whole debate. He said it doesn't matter to him if there's a DH -- "keep it or lose it, fine" -- but that the rules should be consistent one way or the other.

Acta isn't holding his breath.

"It will probably always be this way," he said.

That means managers from both leagues will continue to play the game both ways, although the adjustment is far easier for NL skippers who merely insert another bat into the lineup.

It's harder to take one out, although Brandon Inge being on rehab assignment with the Mud Hens for awhile will allow Leyland to tinker with Alex Avila at third base, catch Victor Martinez and keep both potent bats in the lineup.

The way the Tribe has struggled offensively without injured DH Travis Hafner, Acta can hardly afford to pull another bat. But he will -- for NINE straight games.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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