Mark Gonzales: More interleague games in 2023 could impact division titles

  • Eloy Jimenez watches his two-run homer during the first inning against the Cubs last August at Wrigley Field.

    Eloy Jimenez watches his two-run homer during the first inning against the Cubs last August at Wrigley Field. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 5/2/2022 10:50 AM

"Loser leaves town."

"Wait till next year."

 

Based on the climate of the Cubs and White Sox that mirrored the chilly April weather, these could be appropriate slogans as the latest chapter of the Crosstown Classic starts Tuesday night at Wrigley Field.

Fortunately for the Sox, there are five months left in the season. Lance Lynn, Yoan Moncada and Wade Miley have yet to play for their respective teams. The World Series remains the singular goal for the Sox, so there's no reason to rush their respective returns.

Furthermore, the Cubs and Sox are playing only four times this season, and for the foreseeable future.

That's part of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, in which every major league team will play at least one interleague series against teams from the other league starting in 2023.

A major league source confirmed the home-and-home series between the Cubs and Sox will stay intact, but they will no longer play two three-game series under the balanced schedule format.

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This means fewer chances for Eloy Jimenez to hit a game-winning home run against his former organization, as he did in 2019 at Wrigley Field. Or Willson Contreras celebrating his first of two home runs with a skyrocket bat flip and getting nailed later by a Jimmy Cordero pitch in 2020.

The 2023 balanced schedule represents the latest homogenous move, which raises the question of the value and interest in interleague play (instituted in 1997). The implementation of the designated hitter in the National League this spring finally puts both leagues under the same set of rules.

More interleague games also will result in fewer interdivisional games, which often determines division titles. Every division winner posted the best intradivision record in their respective divisions in 2021.

Fewer intradivision games mean fewer opportunities for Cubs fans to make the short drive to Miller Park, and likewise for Sox followers commuting to Detroit or Cleveland.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Simply, fewer intradivision games mean fewer opportunities to catch first-place teams in head-to-head competition.

Despite their sloppy, injury-plagued start, the Sox have enough games remaining to at least match their 44-32 record against the American League Central in 2021 and win the division. Teams won't be afforded that chance in the future.

But prior to this season, interleague play often represented a break from the monotony. NL managers relished the chance to get another batter in the lineup with the DH in AL parks. AL managers liked playing at home under their set of rules, although occasionally there would be a surprise at an NL park, such as a home run from Jon Garland or Mark Buehrle.

Joe Maddon, who has managed interleague games from all angles with the Rays, Cubs and Angels, is on board with the scheduling alterations.

"Our division (AL West) is no cakewalk," Maddon said Friday. "But by the same token, if you're really good, you could probably beat up on the division, too.

"So it works both ways. That's why I think just balancing it out gives you a more true indicator of who's really good."

Maddon also sees the travel benefits of playing every team at least once a season. For all the annual gripes about the schedule, one of the wiser decisions recently has been scheduling teams to play one week of games in a specific city, as the Athletics did in Chicago in 2019 against the Cubs and Sox, and the Rays did last month.

But playing a road series in your home city helps make the Crosstown Classic special -- even with a permanent reduction in games.

"There's real, real opposition," said Maddon, who was 14-10 against the Sox in five seasons as Cubs manager. "(The Cubs and Sox) fans don't like each other, and that's what I talked about when it was Hazleton-West Hazleton (Penn.) and Lafayette-Lehigh.

"It's good when that happens. I think that's good for a sport."

It's even better when there's more at stake. The two series will be held this month, so there's no chance for the Cubs to dramatically ruin the Sox's playoff chances.

Without Jimenez, it's time for a teammate to step up, or for an unheralded Cub to make a statement and enhance the rivalry.

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