Interleague play starts on down note

PHILADELPHIA -- Ah, the unbalanced schedule.

The Red Sox began the 14th season of interleague play against the Phillies on Friday night at Citizens Bank Park, and Boston manager Terry Francona admits he's not a big fan of it even though his club went 11-7 last season.

The Red Sox saw their three-game winning streak end with a 5-1 loss, and even though Boston was without the services of the designated hitter, David Ortiz almost found a way to tie the score in the top of the ninth inning.

With the bases loaded and two outs, and Philadelphia lefty reliever J.C. Romero on the mound, Francona decided to insert the hot-hitting Ortiz as a pinch hitter for Bill Hall. Ortiz smoked a 1-2 fastball to deep center field, but it was caught on the warning track some 400 feet from home plate.

"I would rather had been up, but we had a chance to tie the game, so we gave it a shot," said Francona. "He took a really good swing. We had a chance and we took it."

As Ortiz was leaving the clubhouse, he was asked if he thought the ball had a chance to get out.

"Always," he said with a smile. "Always."

Ortiz entered the game on an offensive tear this month with a .358 average, seven homers and 17 RBIs. But because of interleague play and the National League ballpark, the Sox do not have a DH. That's a major reason Francona does not like interleague play.

"We built our team to have a DH and we don't have it," said Francona. "I can't see it as an advantage. We'll either handle it or we won't. The schedule's what it is. There have been times in the past we've handled it really well and there have been times when it seems like we haven't."

This season, the unbalanced schedule seems to give Boston a disadvantage because of the quality opponents it will face. The Sox will play two series against the Phillies, including one at Fenway Park. Boston also will host the Diamondbacks and Dodgers, and play the Rockies and Giants on the road.

The defending World Series champion New York Yankees play the Mets twice, Houston, Philadelphia, Arizona and the Dodgers.

The Tampa Bay Rays face Florida twice, Houston, Atlanta, San Diego and Arizona.

There are some inconsistencies, but Francona's not about to complain about it.

"It wouldn't be if we were on the other side of it. If statistically we were going up against the worst, I'd be happy," he said. "Guys like me say you always want the schedule to be balanced because then how you play determines, as opposed to who you're playing. It's the luck of the draw, so what are you going to do?"

Over the last two seasons, the Red Sox have been on the receiving end of injures to their pitchers in interleague play. While preparing for interleague play last June, Tim Wakefield was taking BP when he injured his back and was never the same the remainder of the season and needed offseason surgery.

Josh Beckett is on the 15-day DL because he suffered a lower-back strain while taking BP, too. There's no way around pitchers needing BP because they bat in NL parks.

"We somewhat have to have them prepared," said Francona. "They don't take a lot of BP. They hit off the tee and the progression is very slow and controlled. Mainly they do a lot of bunting. You try to keep an eye on them, but the rule says they need to be in there, so we try to get the most out of them, whether it's get the bunt down, or maybe not making a quick out because sometimes that can be as helpful as anything else."

Some AL managers, both past and present, don't even want their pitchers to swing when they're at the plate. That was Francona's rule during spring training, but he's not about to enforce that here.

"You've got to play the game. It's not spring training, and there are reasons we do that in spring training, but I bet there's been a time or two when we had a guy take."

Clearly NL pitchers are better hitters for the simple fact they do it more since. Case in point: Phillies starting pitcher Cole Hamels produced a couple of solid at-bats Friday night against Sox starter John Lackey. Hamels flied out to deep center field in the second inning and singled on a liner to left-center field in the fourth.

Lackey produced a well-executed sacrifice bunt in his first at-bat. He grounded out on a weak chopper to third in the fifth inning.

There are other aspects to interleague play that forces managers to tweak their lineups.

In the Red Sox's case, when they play in NL parks they lose Ortiz's bat from the order. The slugger is solid defensively and he's scheduled to play first base this weekend, probably Saturday.

Even with Ortiz in the field, don't expect the hot-hitting Kevin Youkilis to move across the diamond to third base. He will have one of the next two games off.

"I don't want to move Youk over to third," said Francona. "I don't think that's in our best interest. I know he can do it."

During the offseason, Youkilis said he felt playing strictly first base would help his offensive output. He was right. He entered Friday's game with a .324 average with eight homers and 26 RBIs. In his last six games games, he's 9-for-22 with five runs, three homers, nine RBIs and four walks.

The Red Sox have been struggling this season, and with interleague play beginning, especially against the opponents they're going to face on the road, it could get worse.

Joe McDonald covers the Bruins and Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.