INTERLEAGUE PLAY, like an annual plague of locusts, is about to descend upon us once again.

There is no argument here that the gimmick, introduced in 1997 to artificially enhance attendance after the ruinous strike of 1994-95, has done what it was intended to do. Average crowds for interleague games are larger. There's no denying that.

And there's even be something to be said for the legit natural rivalries - Yankees-Mets, Cubs-White Sox, Dodgers-Angels - that proponents of the system like to hold up as examples of the excitement of it all.

One problem, though, came when Major League Baseball tried to pretend that every franchise had an opponent in the opposite league that would make sparks fly if they met. Which just ain't true.

When the Phillies had a home-and-home series every season with the Orioles, it was sort of fun. There wasn't much history between the teams, but phans could make an easy drive down I-95 to see the Inner Harbor and Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Then the Nationals came into existence. That gave the O's a more logical interleague foil, but it left the Phillies with Toronto coming into Citizens Bank Park tonight. Outside of the 1993 World Series and the fact that the Phils and Blue Jays are spring-training neighbors in Pinellas County, Fla., there isn't much to link these clubs.

Inevitably, some teams will get a raw deal. Consider, for example, Atlanta's plight.

Through the luck of the draw, it has been determined that the Braves' designated interleague foe should be the Boston Red Sox. Well, the Braves did play in Boston more than 50 years ago.

Anyway, the Braves have six games against the Red Sox, who have the best record in baseball this year. The Mets play six against the Yankees, who have a losing record.

"It's a factor in the pennant race," Atlanta third baseman Chipper Jones said. "I don't think there's any question it's unfair. But Major League Baseball isn't concerned about what's fair."

The hot corner

-- Former Marlins manager and current broadcaster Joe Girardi understands the whispers that he could be Joe Torre's heir apparent if the Yankees decide to make a change. "It's uncomfortable at times because of the respect I have for [Torre] and the job I know he does," Girardi told the Chicago Tribune. "I enjoy what I'm doing [but] I do want to manage again."

-- Former Marlins manager and current broadcaster understands the whispers that he could be heir apparent if the Yankees decide to make a change. "It's uncomfortable at times because of the respect I have for [Torre] and the job I know he does," Girardi told the . "I enjoy what I'm doing [but] I do want to manage again."

-- Plenty of teams, including the Phillies, are looking for bullpen help. But Brewers general manager Doug Melvin says he's in "no hurry" to move Jose Capellan, who is currently at Triple A Nashville. And any chance the Twins might trade a reliever like Juan Rincon are probably off now that Jesse Crain has been diagnosed with a torn rotator cuff.

Around the bases

-- The Padres are considering bringing in the fences at Petco Park for the second time. "How can you watch the ball die in left-center and right-center on a nightly basis and not think about it?" asked CEO Sandy Alderson.

-- The Padres are considering bringing in the fences at Petco Park for the second time. "How can you watch the ball die in left-center and right-center on a nightly basis and not think about it?" asked CEO .

-- Cardinals centerfielder Jim Edmonds is irked by what he sees as a lack of urgency in the defending world champion's clubhouse. "If things aren't working, we've got to change them," he said. "We need to figure out why they're not working and make an adjustment. We can't just keep coming up with lame excuses every day why we're not winning."

-- As if Rangers rookie manager Ron Washington weren't having enough problems with his last-place team, he pulled a hamstring recently running out of the dugout to argue an umpire's call.

ON DECK

CHEERS: For Jack Cust and Tim Byrdak, two career minor leaguers whose determination paid off this week.

CHEERS: For Jack Cust and Tim Byrdak, two career minor leaguers whose determination paid off this week.

Cust, who came into this season with 191 career minor league homers but only 144 big-league games spread out over a 10-year pro career, returned to the Athletics organization after designated hitter Mike Piazza had to go on the disabled list. All he did in his first 10 games was hit seven home runs. "It's been crazy," the New Hope resident said. "Crazy, but fun."

Byrdak, meanwhile, is a 33-year-old lefthander who was called up by the Tigers this week. He has had multiple elbow surgeries. He had a career 7.06 ERA. But he never quit, even putting his financial future in peril to play in the independent Northern League in 2003. "If I hadn't been called up by Baltimore [in 2005] , we would have filed for bankruptcy," he said, adding that it took more than a year to pay off the bills that piled up while he was playing for Joliet and Gary.

JEERS: To whoever was responsible for the camera shot of the bar owned by Cardinals broadcaster (and former reliever) Al Hrabosky across the street from Busch Stadium during a recent Cardinals game on FSN Midwest.

Under normal circumstances, it would have been a harmless plug. Coming so soon after Cardinals reliever Josh Hancock was killed in an alcohol-related car accident, it showed really poor judgment.

By the numbers

1: Home run hit by all Twins third basemen, leftfielders and designated hitters combined.

1: Home run hit by all Twins third basemen, leftfielders and designated hitters combined.

7: Members of the Mets organization, all pitchers, who have been suspended for violating baseball's substance-abuse policy since the start of the 2006 season after minor league reliever Lino Urdaneta was nailed this week.

3: Pinch-hit home runs this season for Dodgers infielder Wilson Betemit.

11: Relief losses for the Royals. The Twins bullpen combined for 11 losses all last year.

.162: Opponent's batting average for Nationals righthander Jason Bergmann, lowest in the major leagues.

Up next

The Tampa Yankees host the Fort Myers Miracle tonight at Legends Field. Which matters, of course, because Roger Clemens will be pitching for Tampa in his first start since coming out of retirement again.

The Tampa Yankees host the Fort Myers Miracle tonight at Legends Field. Which matters, of course, because Roger Clemens will be pitching for Tampa in his first start since coming out of retirement again.

If all goes well, Clemens could be back in the big leagues after one more appearance, next Wednesday at Double A Trenton.

Weeklings

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: Diamondbacks infielder Mark Reynolds, on being called up from the minors for the first time: "It hasn't set in that I'm in the big leagues yet. But if I see myself on SportsCenter, then maybe."

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: Diamondbacks infielder Mark Reynolds, on being called up from the minors for the first time: "It hasn't set in that I'm in the big leagues yet. But if I see myself on SportsCenter, then maybe."

HOT SEAT OF THE WEEK: With the regular season now at the quarter pole, speculation on which managers might be in trouble will begin in earnest. And the early focus is on Baltimore's Sam Perlozzo.

Not only did impatient owner Peter Angelos spend $80 million during the offseason that hasn't paid dividends to this point, but Perlozzo has been in the cross hairs since the bullpen blew a 5-0 lead after he removed starter Jeremy Guthrie, who had thrown only 91 pitches, when he was only two outs away from a shutout.

General manager Mike Flanagan this week refused to comment on Perlozzo's day-to-day status. Hmmmm. That can't be a good sign.

PERSPECTIVE OF THE WEEK: The White Sox are batting .222 as a team, dead last in the majors. And many fans want hitting coach Greg Walker to take the fall.

Responded general manager Kenny Williams: "People want a reaction to a lack of performance. I'm not interested in that. We're interested in a stable franchise that allows us to compete on a yearly basis and, to do that, you'd better keep your people around. That's the long answer. The short answer is, I haven't even thought about it."

PLAY OF THE WEEK: Athletics second baseman Mark Ellis made two errors all last season. As hard as it is to believe, he matched that total on one play Sunday.

He kicked a grounder from Cleveland's Mike Rouse with two outs in the third inning, allowing Rouse to reach base and David Dellucci to score. That was the first error. Then he picked up another when he flipped his throw over the head of first baseman Dan Johnson, allowing Rouse to advance to second. "That was awful. It was embarrassing," Ellis said.

Finally

Switching the start of the World Series to Wednesday night instead of the traditional Saturday makes sense for television. And anybody who doesn't think that's the most important factor is just kidding himself.

Switching the start of the World Series to Wednesday night instead of the traditional Saturday makes sense for television. And anybody who doesn't think that's the most important factor is just kidding himself.

But agreeing to allow Fox to move Game 1 back 4 days to Oct. 24 instead of ahead 3 days does create some issues beyond the fact that Game 7 would now be played on Nov. 1.

To reach the postseason, a team needs depth, especially pitching depth. The new schedule, however, creates a huge gap between the end of the LCS and the beginning of the World Series, further de-emphasizing that aspect of the game.

Long layoffs are also different from the daily grind of the regular season. So don't be surprised if the Division Series is expanded to a best-of-seven format. The argument against it in the past has been that the season was already too long. Of course, when television wanted to push the start of the World Series back, that suddenly didn't seem quite so important, did it?