Friday, June 17, 2011

Closing Time: Where have you gone, Tom Henke?

The Cardinal and Dodger bullpens have driven us crazy this year, and a similar situation is brewing in Toronto. You search for a positive needle in this haystack, but nobody's right if everybody's wrong.

Start with Jon Rauch, who allowed two runs in the ninth Thursday (in a tie game, standard closer work at home) and now has a 4.50 ERA. A scary neck tattoo only goes so far. Frank Francisco doesn't have a clean inning to his name since May 19, and he's permitted 20 baserunners in his last 10 appearances. Who wants that for the ninth inning? Casey Janssen has been steady in his non-closing role, but he just landed on the 15-day disabled list with a sore right forearm.

Perhaps Jason Frasor, at some point, can emerge as the last man standing. Frasor isn't intimidating anyone on the mound, standing 5-10 and 175 pounds, but he nonetheless has a fastball in the 92-93 range and his ratios are fine (2.86 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 24 strikeouts in 28.1 innings). Closing experience tends to be overrated but he was a capable stopper in 2004 and 2009. The big problem with Frasor is the gopher ball ? he's allowed four homers in 2011. And even with others around him struggling, Frasor hasn't been getting ninth-inning closing assignments from manager John Farrell. Frasor's one blown save came in an eighth-inning stint at Oakland back in April.

If I had to place closing bets in the YYZ right now, I'd go Francisco first, Rauch second and Frasor third ? betting on Farrell's usage patterns and gut feel. But this situation could be fluid for the rest of the year. Hey Tom Henke, how quickly can you get back into game shape?

Bullpen problems were a theme around the abbreviated Thursday slate. Let's have a look around:

?�The pendulum swung back a bit in Atlanta, with Jonny Venters having a rare off night in the seventh and eighth (2 R, 1 ER, 2 BB) while Craig Kimbrel cruised in a perfect ninth (two strikeouts). I'm still envisioning a time-share element on this club, but Kimbrell's stock gets a nudge forward from this. The Braves pushed across a surprise win when New York's bullpen imploded; Francisco Rodriguez served up a game-tying homer to Brooks Conrad in the ninth and D.J. Carrasco balked home the winning run in the tenth.

?�The Cardinals lost an extra-inning game in Washington, with Fernando Salas falling apart in his second inning of work (one hit, one plunk, then a walk-off homer to Danny Espinosa). Salas has earned some leash from the Redbirds, but even if you want to hedge here, the presence of Tony La Russa makes you nervous. Mitchell Boggs worked two scoreless innings Thursday and has five bagels posted since returning from the minors. Jason Motte has a strikeout in each of his last five appearances. Eduardo Sanchez is temporarily out of the picture, disabled with a sore shoulder.

?�Jonathan Papelbon made things interesting in a Tampa save chance, allowing a couple of hits to open the ninth, but a popped-up bunt settled things down and Papelbon struck out the final two batters. Handshake, walk off the mound, fly out of town. Papelbon's recent slump is probably no big deal given the patience of skipper Terry Francona, but be aware that Daniel Bard is once again throwing pellets in the eighth inning (eight scoreless frames this month, 0 BB, 8 K).

?�J.J. Putz was letter perfect into June but he's hit some bumps of late, blowing three saves in 16 days. I don't see much of a reason to worry given that he's collected nine strikeouts this month and he hasn't walked anyone. Arizona has also won two of the blown-save games (including Thursday's); it's not like he's throwing batting practice and single-handedly costing his team a chance to win. Two singles and a sacrifice fly got him against the Giants.

Ian Kennedy was terrific in Thursday's no-decision (8 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 10 K) while Ryan Vogelsong had his normal performance on the other side (6 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 1 BB, 6 K). Kennedy heads to Kansas City next week (he's long been in the circle of trust), while Vogelsong is at home against Minnesota (use him).

?�Sometimes a little flakiness is a good thing for a ballplayer, and especially a pitcher. Don't think, Meat, you're hurting the club. Consider the Thursday evening of Matt Moore, highly-regarded Tampa Bay pitching prospect. The lefty was working on a no-hitter in Mobile but blissfully unaware of the fact until a patron let Moore know about it two-thirds of the way through. "There [weren't] a lot of fans there, so I heard him," admitted Moore. "When I first realized it, things started to get serious."

When Moore gets serious, hitters are in trouble. He finished off his no-no, striking out 11 and walking just two. He also collected 11 ground-ball outs, and the dazzling effort required just 106 pitches. Moore, who turns 22 on Saturday, is clearly owning the Southern League this summer: he's first in ERA (2.43) and tops in strikeouts (103 over 77.2 innings; his entire pro career is parade of punchouts). The Rays have never been a team to rush their prospects to the majors, but Moore is going to force his way into the conversation soon.

?�Nick Blackburn and Mark Buehrle matched up in a pitch-to-contact special, the sort of Midwestern value you're used to seeing on a getaway day (when in streaming doubt, head to Target Field). Blackburn dodged seven hits and a walk over eight scoreless innings, while Buehrle's only blemish was Michael Cuddyer's solo homer in the second. Matt Capps ended things with a two-strikeout ninth, and suddenly the Twins are only 11 games under .500 (no sarcasm intended, they've played well of late). Tsuyoshi Nishioka returned to the Minnesota lineup, batting third and playing shortstop. It was an ordinary first day (1-for-4, two strikeouts, one error), but keep in mind he has dual-position eligibility.

Speed Round: Gio Gonzalez got his mojo back, striking out 10 Royals over six strong innings (5 H, 2 R). He's at Citi Field next week. The Athletics had a four-run lead for the ninth, so Grant Balfour finished up. … Joel Hanrahan needed a rest after three straight days of work (the plucky Pirates have a sneaky 35-33 record), so Jose Veras picked up the rogue save in Houston (2 H, 1 R). No reason to react to that news item. Jason Bourgeois made the most of his ninth-inning appearance: one hit, one steal, one run. … Javier Vazquez was surprisingly not terrible in Philly, but that doesn't matter much when Cliff Lee throws a two-hit shutout. Ryan Howard homered and has that "I'm about to go on a monster tear" look to him. … The ball was jumping in Wrigley Field, which partially explains Zack Greinke's funky line (5.1 IP, 8 H, 8 R, 6 ER, 2 BB, 10 K). Forget the 5.23 ERA here, follow the lead of the other numbers (he's averaging almost eight strikeouts for every walk, which is obscenely good). … Kevin Gregg keeps doing just enough to get by. He's 13-of-17 on saves and has a 3.29 ERA, despite a bloated 1.54 WHIP and a BB:K ratio that's almost 1:1. J.J. Hardy sparked the Orioles offense, with a homer and a double out of the leadoff spot. He's up to .299. … Joe Mauer is off the disabled list and should play Friday. … Clay Buchholz left early with a sore back and his status is uncertain for next week. There's also an issue with Jed Lowrie (shoulder), who might need a DL stint (making Marco Scutaro a possible deep-league grab). … Tommy Hanson will be skipped Friday while the Braves look into his shoulder tendinitis. … Jordan Schafer collected five hits and three runs scored in Atlanta's ten-inning victory. There's not much pop here, but Schafer does have 15 runs, nine walks and seven steals in just 20 games. That will keep him in the leadoff spot for a while. … Roto Arcade is on Facebook, amigos.


Images courtesy Associated Press

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