- The Washington Times - Monday, July 3, 2006

The Mets never pretended to replace that other New York team as the Boston Red Sox’s chief rival, but they still swaggered into Fenway Park on Tuesday feeling pretty good about themselves and the upcoming series. They were, after all, the best team by far in the National League.

On Thursday, the Mets remained the best team in the NL. But they limped out of Boston humbled by three straight losses (their first series sweep of the season), the most prominent casualty of the American League’s season-long ransacking of the National League. Heading into the last two games last night, the AL held a 153-98 advantage, the most lopsided edge in the decade of interleague play. It has been hard not to notice.

“My wife mentioned it to me,” Nationals manager Frank Robinson said last week. “She said, ‘You know, you guys are getting your butts kicked in interleague play. What’s going on?’”

Robinson replied, “I’ve got other problems like the rest of the National League.”

Junior circuit, indeed.

“The record speaks volumes,” Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski said.

“We’re a much better league at this point,” Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi said.

“I’ve never seen the disparity in talent that I’ve seen this year,” Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling told reporters after beating the Mets on Thursday.

It goes beyond interleague play. In the latest ESPN.com power rankings, eight of the majors’ top nine teams play in the AL. The Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers are considered the best, and the Red Sox are not far behind. The Yankees, despite their injuries, are still formidable. Toronto, third in the AL East, might be better than any NL team except the Mets. Minnesota is hot. A good team or two figure to miss the playoffs in the American League.

In the NL, where mediocre clubs figure to make the postseason, there is a big drop-off after the Mets. What other team is formidable? Defending NL champion Houston and perennial power St. Louis are struggling. Atlanta has finally crashed after 14 straight NL East titles.

“It could be a down year for the National League,” Robinson said. “The elite clubs are not playing the way they played in the past.”

“I don’t know if one league is better than the other,” statistics guru and author Bill James, a consultant for the Red Sox, said in an e-mail.

That sounds like something James would say. James has made debunking conventional wisdom his life’s work.

But he added, “Obviously, there is a fair amount of objective evidence to support the proposition that there may be an imbalance between the leagues.”

Not only has the AL dominated interleague play, this is the third straight season it has had an advantage against the NL — by increasing margins. The AL has won the last two World Series, three of the last four and six of the last eight. For what it’s worth, the AL also has won the last eight All-Star Games that did not end in a tie.

James said the “notion of imbalance between the leagues should be regarded with a fair amount of skepticism since there is no obvious reason for there to be a disparity.”

Of course, it could be cyclical; there have been periods when the NL was clearly the stronger league.

But reasons for the recent disparity do exist. The two highest-spending teams, the Yankees and Red Sox, play in the AL. The designated hitter gives the AL an edge in half the interleague games because most AL teams have a full-time DH and NL teams use a bench player. Beyond the DH, the AL always has been considered a hitters’ league.

“What strikes you about the quality of the American League is that it’s offensive baseball,” said Baltimore Orioles pitching coach Leo Mazzone, who is his first season in the AL after 15 years in Atlanta. “I think with the DH and the offense, it’s a completely different game. The National League has offense, too, but it’s more of a baseball game. The American League is more of a home run contest.”

Philadelphia outfielder David Dellucci, who played in the AL with the Orioles, Yankees and Rangers, said: “They have much more powerful lineups from batter number one to number nine.”

Hitting leadoff in most games for the Rangers last season, Dellucci hit 29 homers. Catcher Rod Barajas, who frequently batted ninth in the order, hit 21.

Pitchers won’t argue.

“They more or less build their lineups around power,” said Orioles starter Kris Benson, who is in his first AL season after six in the NL. “From top to bottom, there are more good hitters.”

American League teams lose the DH when they visit NL parks, but they still win. Maybe that’s because the AL has discovered pitching and defense.

“You go team-by-team in the American League, and you find a lot of really good pitching,” said former Arizona GM Joe Garagiola Jr., now the senior vice president for Major League Baseball operations.

“The National League always pitched better than the American League, and now that’s flipping around,” outgoing Nationals president Tony Tavares said. “The American League used to slug the ball, and the National League fielded great and pitched well. But now, you think of the Red Sox in particular, a team noted for slugging, poor defense, no speed, that’s completely flipped around.”

Boston just set a major league record with 17 straight errorless games. The majors’ top three teams in fielding percentage and nine of the top 15 play in, that’s right, the AL.

“I think a lot of teams in the American League have done a better job figuring things out,” Tavares said.

“No question [the AL] has been an offense-oriented league,” said Dombrowski, whose Tigers have one of the best young staffs in the game. “You have to score runs in our league. But people realize you have to have pitching, too. There’s some good young pitching in this league. Right now, it’s come to the forefront.”

• Staff writer Mark Zuckerman contributed to this article.

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