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The Strike Zone

New schedule more fair but has quirks

The Rangers and Astros will be matching up 19 times next season once Houston move to the AL West. (AP)

Major League Baseball's newly released 2013 calendar is a step forward for fairness in scheduling, embodied by the numbers 76-66-20. Every team’s slate of games now follows the same template: 76 games against clubs within the division, 66 games against foes in the league’s other two divisions and 20 games against interleague opponents, a change made possible by the Astros’ defection from the National League to the American League, which will leave both leagues with 15 teams.

The math is more simplistic and more equitable now. Every club has a one-in-five chance to win its division and a two-in-12 chance at a wild card berth (excepting the three division winners).

One quirk, however, is that there are now 19 games against intra-divisional opponents, meaning one of the two clubs will necessarily have a homefield advantage in the season series.

But overall, it’s a good schedule, even if some changes may take some getting used to.

*Daily interleague: No longer will interleague play -- which now increases to a total of 20 games, up from 18 -- be relegated to defined intervals of the season. Given the odd number of clubs in each league, there will now be an interleague series at all times of the year, starting with the Angels-at-Reds on April 1 and continuing until Tigers-at-Marlins on Sept. 29.

Interleague play has been around since 1997 and thus should be sufficiently commonplace that it won’t distract anyone when it accounts for one out of 15 games every day of the season rather than the previous model, which was more exclusive.

*Is September compromised? It shouldn’t be. Most of the complaints about daily interleague will probably be centered on teams playing interleague series in September, during possible pennant races. The counter-arguments, however, range from the trite (every game counts the same, no matter when it’s played) to the practical (September call-ups). Though changes are possible to the way September call-ups are currently employed -- when all players on the 40-man roster are eligible for promotion and game activity -- some degree of expanded rosters will remain, and that should be ample ammunition for a manager needing a little room to maneuver a game played by the other league’s rules.

The Tigers, Red Sox, Mariners and Blue Jays all play a series in an NL park during September, meaning they’ll lose their DH, and the Giants, Reds, Pirates and Mets all play a September series in an AL park, meaning they’ll need to find a DH amongst a roster not usually suited for one. (Also, the Angels play at the Brewers in a series that ends on Sept. 1.) Though it’s not an ideal time for interleague play, at least those clubs will have more players at their disposal to fill in the gaps.

*Week of “prime rivals” an unavoidable missed opportunity. Every club now has a designated rival against whom it plays four interleague games. Unfortunately -- and uncontrollably -- all of those games are scheduled for the same four days in late May.

Having daily interleague play could have allowed some previously overlooked geographic rivalries more breathing room. The Orioles and Nationals, for instance, have the makings of an up-and-coming annual matchup, but it will be played concurrently with Yankees-Mets, Dodgers-Angels and Red Sox-Phillies. Surely the national TV networks will overlook the mid-Atlantic once again, at least in primetime. At least one of the four days is the Memorial Day holiday, when staggered afternoon start times could allow for increased exposure.

MLB had little choice but to make the schedule this way, however, given the difficult mechanics of interweaving a pair of two-game series for every club into other times on the schedule, when three- and four-game sets are more the norm. It’s a 26-week season with 52 series -- for 24 weeks, that’s two series per week. But there’s only time for one series at the All-Star Game, so one week needs to be a “squeeze week” with a third series crammed in, and the pair of two-game sets against one’s designated interleague rival, followed by a three-game series elsewhere made sense as a remedy.

Not only does the math work well in terms of numbers of games and series, so too does the travel. In many instances the rivals are geographically near, so the burden of adding an extra trip in a week is minimized somewhat.

Playing the rivalry games over the course of the same four days eliminates that logistical nightmare. But it also denies some budding interleague series the chance to enjoy a broader audience.

-- By Joe Lemire

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