Monday night, just before the start of our first game against the Yankees, I received a text message from a friend calling the series a rematch of the 1996 World Series. While this series obviously didn’t have the same magnitude of that fall classic, it always feels that way when the two clubs go at it, or at least to me it does. In fact, I get really excited for interleague play in general. I see it as an opportunity to prove to the baseball world that the Braves are a force to be reckoned with and not just a middling NL team that’s no threat come playoff time. And over the years, believe it or not, our team has risen to that challenge. Atlanta’s winning percentage in interleague play from 1997-2011 was .535, the second highest percentage for an NL team, behind only the Marlins (.536). However, the AL has accumulated more total interleague wins than the NL in each of the last eight seasons, which only adds to the laundry list of signs that analysts and fans tend to highlight when arguing that the AL is a much stronger league than its counterpart.
Because most of my friends are northerners and Yankees fans, I end up comparing and contrasting the two clubs at least a few times each season. Any time I manage to conjure up a few reasons why the Braves are as good as or better than the Yankees, the standard end-all response is, “Yeah, but the Braves wouldn’t win half as many games if they played in the AL East.” But is that really true, or just the result of inflated egos form years of disproportionate amounts of coverage and hype-building for the AL East by the national sports media?
I’ll admit that at the moment, the Yankees are a more complete team than the Braves. They have a stellar offense (as always), a good rotation (although not as solid as usual), and a bit of a shaky bullpen with the absence of Mariano. I don’t hear anyone talk about this, probably because they are still winning almost sixty percent of their games, but the Yankees are getting old. Almost all of their everyday players are 30 or older.
The Braves have been streaky all season, on both sides of the ball, but on most days we field a great defense and a sound lineup, starting with the best leadoff hitter and center fielder in the game right now. Freeman shows few signs of slowing down after his hot rookie season, and Uggla and McCann offer much-needed power in the middle. Heyward isn’t living up to expectations, but we get enough flashes of brilliance from him to remain star-struck. Our rotation isn’t perfect, but we at least get consistent quality out of our top three (Hudson, Hanson, Beachy), and there are few closers in the game who can match up with the Craig Machine.
It’s hard to make this argument while on a four-game losing streak, and having just been swept by the evil empire, but I believe that the Braves are as good as or better than two-thirds of AL teams, including three or four of the AL East teams. And, if you look closely at our interleague games so far, we are only a few bad innings away from having swept the Blue Jays and taken two out of three from the Yanks. If Venters doesn’t leave that pitch to A-Rod right down the pipe, the sweep doesn’t happen. If Bourn doesn’t leave three men in scoring position last night, we win that game too.
Of course, interleague play and actually playing as part of the AL East are two completely different ideas. For one, if the Braves played in the AL, they’d have an everyday pinch hitter, meaning three ABs a night for Hinske, or more plate appearances from Chipper without him having to risk a line drive off his shin. And playing against the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays on a consistent basis would mean more ticket sales, more money for our franchise all around, and maybe the front office wouldn’t be as apprehensive about making moves and picking up a big-name bat or two.
I’m not calling for a big shake-up of the divisions. That’s the last thing I want. I’m totally comfortable with the Braves in the NL East, I like the different rivalries we’ve developed over the years, and I enjoy the extra strategy that revolves around the pitcher being part of the lineup. I just think it’s easy for fans of the big-market, spotlight teams to develop a sense of superiority, almost invincibility. But that’s alright, I guess. It makes the wins against those teams (even when they are hard to come by) that much sweeter. The good news is that we’ve got three more games against the Yankees next week, which gives the club a chance at redemption in the Bronx.