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Closing Time: Clay Buchholz mows them down; Nate McLouth runs onto your roster

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Jar of Clay (USAT)

We're still in April and the caveats about small-sample size remain. But at some point a fast start turns into a good season. When is it okay to fully buy into Boston right-hander Clay Buchholz

Buccholz won his fifth consecutive start Thursday against the Astros, turning in 7.2 superb innings (6 H, 2 R, 2 BB, 10 K). Have a look at the scouting video, see what you make of it. Obviously no one mistakes the 2013 Astros for the 1927 Yankees (and they strike out at a ridiculous clip), but they are 13th in the majors in runs. Houston's crummy record is driven by the awful pitching staff, worst in the majors thus far.

Back in The Hub, take a look at that snappy Buchholz resume. He's worked at least seven innings in every turn, he flirted with a no-hitter against Tampa Bay two weeks ago, and he's striking out better than a batter per inning. His WHIP is a tidy 1.01, the ERA a silly 1.19. Perhaps this is a career year at age 28.

Outlier ERAs are going to come with some outlier stats in the luck categories, that's to be understood. A 3.7 FB/HR clip immediately comes to mind, not to mention a 90.2 strand rate. That said, Buchholz makes a lot of his own luck with a 47.7 ground-ball rate, and the BABIP against him is a reasonable .264 - not too far below his career mark of .281.

The biggest story from the opening five turns is the strikeouts. Buchholz has never pushed past seven whiffs per nine innings, but he's at 9.32/9 thus far in 2012. His cut fastball (a pitch he added in 2011) has become his best pitch, but he's also getting better results with his traditional heater. Perhaps it's better location and sequencing that's leading to a lot of called strikes; meanwhile, Buchholz is actually getting fewer swinging strikes this year (7.9 percent) than ever before.

If I were doing a Shuffle Up for pitchers right now, Buchholz would be somewhere in the 20-25 range. In shallow leagues, he might be your No. 3 or No. 4 pitcher; in a deeper pool, you're likely slotting him as a two or three. We're talking about a former first-round pick (sandwich round) and touted prospect, someone who already has a no-hitter and an ERA-plus title to his name. It's likely we're looking at the start of a leap season, and while the AL East isn't a smooth ride by any means, it's not nearly as jagged as it was a few years back. Enjoy the ride.

The Cubs bullpen (that freaking Cubs bullpen) actually came through for once, which gives you an idea of how bad the Marlins really are. Hector Rondon, Shawn Camp and Carlos Marmol combined for three scoreless innings as Chicago secured a 4-3 victory; Edwin Jackson picked up a no-decision for his ordinary start (6 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 4 BB, 4 K).

The Marmol close wasn't smooth; they never are. He allowed a walk and a hit and threw 18 pitches. He's still carrying a 1.84 WHIP and 4.35 ERA around for the year, with nine walks over 10.1 innings. This carnival ride isn't for everyone. Marmol is free to add in 60 percent of Yahoo! leagues; it's going to take a while for consumer confidence to rebound.

Is there anyone in this bullpen you're willing to gamble on? I'm still a Kyuji Fujikawa believer, but until he's back on the field healthy, maybe that's a moot point. Kevin Gregg is around if everyone else crashes. James Russell has snappy numbers, but he's the only lefty in this bullpen and that works against his ninth-inning chances.

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That's winning facial hair (USAT)

It will be interesting to see how patient the Athletics are with struggling right-hander Jarrod Parker. The Orioles kicked him around for eight hits and six runs in a blowout victory Thursday, pushing Parker's ERA over eight and his WHIP over two. Parker's walk and strikeout rates are moving in the wrong direction, he's had problems with home runs, and his ground-ball number has dropped almost five percent from last year. I can't be the only roto follower who's pining for a Daniel Straily recall.

Jason Hammel picked up the win for Baltimore, allowing just two unearned runs over six solid (if unspectacular) innings. You'd like to see his strikeout rate pick up, but a 3.82 ERA and 1.14 WHIP (tied to a solid Orioles club) has value. Get ready to use him at Seattle next week.

Baltimore's offensive production was spread around in the victory, but I'd like to spotlight the underappreciated Nate McLouth (okay, I know Andy did this in the previous CT; he's on the bus). McLouth's power has been MIA this year and he's not going to hit much (or even play much) against left-handers, but there's still an ownable player here. McLouth posted a tasty 5-2-2-2 line Thursday with two stolen bases, pushing him up to seven on the year. He's posted a .302 average and .429 OBP through his first 19 games, with 16 runs scored. A lot of skeptics wanted no part of McLouth late last year; they missed out on seven homers and 12 steals over 55 Baltimore games. McLouth is a speciality player, but he should be owned in more than 13 percent of Yahoo! groups.

The surging Pirates grabbed their third straight win Thursday, necessitating a rogue save from Tony Watson (Grilli & Co. needed the night off). It was far from an artistic success from the lefty (two hits, one run) but everyone shook hands at the end. Pittsburgh has the second-best relief ERA in the majors, trailing only the Braves. Pedro Alvarez collected two singles and is starting to come out of it after a horrendous opening two weeks; he's on a 9-for-24 run with four homers over the last eight days. He's still under the Mendoza, but the cobwebs have cleared.

Plenty of fantasy owners want to see Brandon League get the boot in favor of Kenley Jansen, but they might want to cool their jets. Sure, League blew a save in Wednesday's game and he allowed an Ike Davis homer in Thursday's victory, but he's still 12-for-13 in save conversions since joining the Dodgers in the middle of 2012. The team is paying him like a closer and it will take more than the occasional hiccup to force a change.

And it's not like Jansen's recent work has been spotless; he allowed a wall double in Wednesday's game (the ensuing Mark Ellis defensive gem kept the runner from scoring), and he worked around two base runners Thursday. For the moment, the Dodgers are unlikely to fix something they don't see as broken. Respect the baton, gamers.

With all the injuries to the LA starting rotation, it's a good thing Hyun-Jin Ryu has hit the ground running. He had to settle for a no-decision Thursday despite seven super innings (3 H, 1 R, 3 BB, K). With 34 strikeouts against just eight walks and solid ratios (3.41/1.20), this is someone ready for the circle of trust. He'll get Colorado next week (at Chavez Ravine), and then it's probably a trip to San Francisco.

Oh, that tricky Brandon Maurer. His opening start was a mess in Oakland, then he got pounded by the Astros a week later. Dump city, move along. Alas, Maurer has found his stride over the last three turns, producing quality starts and picking up two victories. You probably won't get zesty strikeout numbers here, but Maurer rarely walks anyone and he's inducing plenty of weak contact. I'll give him a long scouting look next week, when he has a home turn against the Orioles.

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