CHICAGO - Jim Leyland never looks happy, but you would imagine his creased, weathered frown is starting to turn upside down. Ron Gardenhire, among other American League managers, is practically giddy after a steady diet of National League competition.
A few days ago, Gardenhire was struck by the re-energized attitude around his Minnesota Twins.
"It's like the guys are saying, 'This is a lot of fun,'" Gardenhire said. "I think we did this for what seemed like four months in '06, so hopefully we can continue the rest of the way."
Life is a lot more enjoyable for Leyland's Detroit Tigers too. They're suddenly winning games without having to score six or seven runs, which has allowed them to climb above .500 after being 24-36 in early June.
It's not a coincidence that the Twins and Tigers got rolling in June, the same time both built a head of steam in 2006. It's a function of interleague play, which once again has illustrated the AL's dominance.
Early this season, it appeared the NL was closing the gap that has existed since at least the time of the Sammy Sosa-Mark McGwire home run race, maybe longer. But then it came time to play head-to-head series.
Rather than a steady dose of Cleveland and the White Sox, Detroit got a chance to play San Diego, San Francisco and Colorado. Minnesota got its crack against Arizona, Milwaukee and Washington.
The results were staggering.
Including the White Sox's 5-1 victory over the Cubs on Sunday night in the last interleague game on the original schedule (two rainouts will be made up later), the AL has a 149-102 lead over the NL. That's a .594 winning percentage.
Talk about the varsity vs. the junior varsity. Even Kansas City (24-40 against AL opponents) went 13-5.
The interleague effect is being felt on both sides of town.
The White Sox were 37-29 on June 13, when AL teams entered a 16-day stretch playing NL opponents exclusively. They led the AL Central by 5 ½ games.
While the Sox went a respectable 9-6 against Colorado, Pittsburgh, the Dodgers and the Cubs, they watched their lead shrivel to 1 ½ games. Minnesota has won 13 of its last 15, including 10 in a row at one stretch. Detroit has been almost as good, winning 12 of 15 against NL teams (and 15 of 18 overall, including a sweep of the White Sox).
The Cubs have lost eight of their last 12 but have barely felt it in the standings. St. Louis went 5-7 in a stretch against Kansas City, Boston and Detroit, cutting the Cubs' lead only from 3 ½ games to 2 ½.
Last-place Cincinnati (9-6) is the only NL Central team to have a winning record. Milwaukee swept a series against Toronto but still wound up only 7-8.
So while the interleague schedule raised the bar for the White Sox, it bought time for the Cubs.
Is the NL ever going to catch up with the AL?
While the NL dominated in the era of Bob Gibson, Pete Rose and Mike Schmidt, it has been consistently pushed around since stars like Derek Jeter, Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez emerged in the 1990s.
The American League has won 10 consecutive All-Star Games (excluding the 2002 tie) and 11 of the last 16 World Series, including multiple championships for Toronto, Boston and the Yankees.
With the Mets trading for Johan Santana, Arizona getting Dan Haren and the Cubs signing Kosuke Fukudome, the NL appeared to be striking back over the winter.
Arizona, the Cubs and St. Louis had the three best records in the majors at the end of April. Philadelphia flexed its muscle for a stretch, winning 15 of 19. But the relative weakness of the NL was exposed, once again, in interleague play.
The AL's overall interleague edge is surprisingly small (1535-1419). But the AL has had an edge in each of the last five seasons, including a 439-324 mark the last three seasons.
That's a .575 winning percentage — the equivalent of a 93-69 season by an entire league. That's dominance.