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Scott Pianowski

Closing Time: Code Red in St. Louis

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Throw the flags and sound the sirens; it's time to put the St. Louis bullpen on 24/7 watch until further notice. Things have been really messy in the Gateway City of late, especially in the ninth inning, and changes can't be far off.

Ryan Franklin was a handy fill-in closer for a while, but he was never considered a long-term solution in that role and lately things have fallen apart. He allowed his second game-winning homer of the week Thursday, a Ryan Braun rocket to left-center, and the entire NL seems to be digging in against Franklin these days (he's allowed 10 runs and five homers over his last 11 appearances). Nothing affects a team's psyche quite like a blown save, and four straight losses to the rival Brewers, at home no less, have thrown Cardinal Nation for a loop.

"It was a really difficult loss," Tony La Russa told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch after Thursday's game. "This whole series . . . I'll think about it tonight." Franklin seemed broken up by the defeat as well, his voice cracking a little as he met with the media (kudos to the veteran for facing the music and not ducking questions).

Assuming Franklin isn't long for the closer gig, what do the Cardinals do? Jason Isringhausen is one option, but he's still working his way up to speed; he wasn't considered available Thursday after pitching one inning the previous night. Chris Perez has the look of a future closer, but he's still in Triple-A, polishing his craft, and the club might not want to rush the 23-year-old. A trade would make a lot of sense here; Brian Fuentes has been mentioned, and you know the other name closers on the block.

Keep in mind we're playing the speculation game here, and nothing is official. But La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan aren't going to sit around idly while gasoline alley pitches this team out of contention. If the Cardinals don't have a different setup to their bullpen by the end of the month, I'll eat my hat. And the closer carousel spins round and round . . .

Kerry Wood and his blister finally hit the DL for real on Thursday, but it could be a short stint. The move was made retroactive to July 14, and the team feels good about getting Wood back Tuesday at Milwaukee. "I feel like I'm close," Wood told the team's official site. "I haven't thrown the ball off a mound in a little while. It's something I've got to do before I jump into games. Hopefully we're ready by Tuesday."

Carlos Marmol mans the ninth for Chicago in the meantime, and he was a wild ride in Thursday's win over Florida. Marmol was asked to get the final four outs and converted, but not without three walks and 38 pitches. He also struck out three, including Wes Helms with the bases loaded to end the game.

There's a lot of herky and jerky in Oliver Perez's delivery, but when he's in synch it's a blast watching him pitch. New York fans certainly agreed Thursday, as Perez bobbed and weaved his way through 7.2 brilliant innings (6 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 12 K), putting the home team in position to win. Some of the flailing swings the Phillies took against Perez's biting slider were downright comical.

Jamie Moyer matched Perez pitch-for-pitch in his own way (7 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 3 BB, 6 K), and eventually it was the bullpens that decided it (Aaron Heilman and Billy Wagner got four outs, while J.C. Romero worked a rocky inning). Perez has given up just five runs over his last five turns, piling up 39 strikeouts over that span. His next turn comes at Florida next week.

Jimmy Rollins got to Shea Stadium late on Thursday and was benched by skipper Charlie Manuel. Rollins made a cameo appearance in the ninth inning, grounding out. It's doubtful this issue will go any further, so no worries here.

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Francisco Rodriguez might be the front-runner for the AL Cy Young Award right now per public opinion, and sorry, that's just wrong. The only truly amazing thing about K-Rod's season is the amount of save chances the Angels have been able to funnel to him. Take the saves out of it and compare Rodriguez to the other closers in the league; can you really say he's having a better year than Joe Nathan or Mariano Rivera or Joakim Soria? Not if you stay objective and focus on the numbers.

I don't get a vote but if I did, I'd be torn between Roy Halladay (brilliant again Thursday) and Cliff Lee right now, with Justin Duchscherer a dark horse if he can stay healthy. We chase saves in fantasy baseball, sure, and it's fun when we beat our opponents to the punch for the next ninth-inning guy. But let's not overrate the importance of this role in real baseball; a 220-inning horse will always be more valuable than the guy protecting 1-to-3 run leads in the ninth.

There's nothing terribly exciting about Marco Scutaro's game, but he's a nifty Swiss Army Knife if you're in a very deep group. Scooter qualifies at four different positions in the Yahoo game (2B, SS, 3B, OF), and he's been quietly productive this month (.290, 14 runs, two homers, 11 RBIs), spending a lot of time near the top of Toronto's lineup.

Scott Olsen keeps churning out the same start: flat slider in the mid-80s, just a few strikeouts, nothing to get excited about. The Cubs got him for six runs over six innings Thursday, pushing Olsen's ERA to 4.07. With a modest 67 whiffs (against 48 walks) over 130.1 innings, I can't say this year's version of Olsen bears any resemblance to the nasty gunslinger we saw in 2006. Take your expectations very far down on this one.

Speed Round: Ray Durham got his first start as Rickie Weeks's caddy, going 0-for-5 with two strikeouts . . . Lastings Milledge (groin) is back from the disabled list, which means Willie Harris slides over to left and Ryan Langerhans (surprisingly useful of late) heads to the bench. To make room on the roster, spare catcher Johnny Estrada was designated for assignment . . . Freddy Sanchez doesn't offer much power or speed, but he's raking since the break (14-for-33) and this Pittsburgh lineup is humming right now (especially the top six guys) . . . Kosuke Fukudome and Geovany Soto both got the night off Thursday . . . If the Yankees truly are interested in Jarrod Washburn, there's a good chance the veteran left-hander would waive his no-trade clause. Washburn has been quietly effective over his last eight turns (2.65 ERA), though it's been a little smoke-and-mirrors (1.37 ratio) . . . Tim Redding was excellent Thursday (8 IP, 7 H, 1 R, 0 BB, 5 K), but Matt Cain was a little bit better (9 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 4 K). The 1-0 beauty took just two hours to complete, a rarity in today's game. As for Joel Hanrahan, his debut as Washington's bullpen ace will have to wait until this weekend in Los Angeles . . . Gil Meche overcame a 31-pitch first inning en route to seven scoreless against Tampa Bay. If there's a pattern that shows when Meche will be effective, I haven't figured it out . . . We probably shouldn't overreact to Matt Garza's spotty turn (5 IP, 8 H, 4 R, 4 BB, 0 K), but anytime I see a start without a strikeout attached, the red pen comes out.

Sorry kids, not an injury blog: Chris Young (skull fracture) is looking at a side-session this weekend and if all goes well, he'll start Tuesday against Arizona . . . Mark Teahen has a sore back and has missed three of the last four games. He's day-to-day . . . Jason Bartlett (knee) came off the DL Thursday and promptly rapped out three hits . . . Chris Ray (elbow) has officially been ruled out for the year, if you wanted to know. Jim Johnson remains compulsory insurance for any George Sherrill owner (Baltimore's getting plenty of phone calls for the closer).

And that's that for a sneaky little Thursday, which generated a fair amount of stories off just seven games (yeah, K-Rod wasn't in action, but some rants can't be held back). Time for your turn at bat, let's get those comments rolling.

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