CINCINNATI – The Orioles will play their first interleague series of the season starting Tuesday night with a three-game set against the Cincinnati Reds at The Great American Ballpark.
One of the caveats of playing in a National League park is that pitchers will hit, and this is the earliest that the Orioles have ever played interleague in an NL park, which creates obstacles.
Orioles starting pitchers took batting practice three days in Toronto to get used to hitting -- there was actually more bunting than actual hitting -- but swinging a bat is something pitchers don't do much of, and it uses muscles they don't normally use, which can lead to soreness, especially early in the season.
"It's a different twisting and turning," manager Buck Showalter said.
Interleague games used to be played together later in the season, but since the Houston Astros joined the American League in 2013, creating two even 15-team leagues, there's one interleague series being played at all times throughout the season. But an American League team playing an interleague series in an NL park in April in rare.
"I think it's going to be different from other years because of that," said right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez, who will start Wednesday in Cincinnati. "You have to be mentally and physically ready to go into the game and hit. Before didn't have to worry about that because interleague was maybe in midseason or after that. But now you have to get ready."
Results aren't expected, but pitchers still seem to enjoy the opportunity to hit. Right-hander Kevin Gausman was quick to show off his elbow guard before taking batting practice Sunday. Gausman is a left-handed hitter, so he wears the guard to protect his pitching arm, and he embraces stepping up to the plate.
"I love it," said Gausman, who is 0-for-7 with five strikeouts. "For me, it kind of takes me back to actually being a baseball player again. Sometimes I don't feel I am when I'm just a pitcher only. So it's fun. It's definitely something we like to do, and we have fun with it, too. We're not trying to strike out, you know? I have yet to get my first major league hit, so it's obviously something I want to get."
Essentially, the most important thing pitchers must prepare for in hitting is knowing their signs and executing bunts when asked.
"I don't think you can really prepare yourself for it too much playing in the American League because you're only going to get a couple of at-bats in a season," said Gausman, who will start Tuesday's series opener. "It's kind of more about making sure you know the signs, do the things that you can control because if you strike out, it's kind of what they're expecting, you know? It's more about not missing signs. If they give you a bunt sign or a take sign, you have to make sure you know what you're doing."
"That's really what you're trying to do," echoed Jimenez, who batted regularly while pitching with the Rockies but is a career .115 hitter. 'I'm not going to hit homers."
What might be the most interesting aspect of all this is how spread out the Orioles' four interleague series in National League parks are. After this series, the Orioles play two games in Washington on May 10-11, then don't play in an NL park until just before the All-Star break in a three-game series in Milwaukee on July 3-5. After that, pitchers won't hit until the final week of the regular season, a two-game series in Pittsburgh on Sept. 26-27.
"I understand what the whole interleague thing is about and people I guess like it," Showalter said. "They seem to like it, but there's no consistency with who plays who and what time [of] the year. One club plays this time of the year. Heck, we're playing [Pittsburgh] the last week of the season."