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Scott Pianowski

Closing Time: Here comes the Dead Zone

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At first glance it was another Pleasant Valley Sunday, filled with plenty of fantasy goodies, but to me it's Black Sunday as we hit the Dead Zone of the sports calendar. Nothing Monday (sorry, Home Run Derby isn't my thing). Nothing Tuesday (we're all too old for the All-Star Game, right?). Nothing at all Wednesday (that's always the hardest day). No homers, no touchdowns, no dunks, no pucks, not even a golf ball in the air. I'm too depressed to construct a fair lead-in to this column, I'd just be faking it. Load up the bullets and let's whistle in the dark:

Every day-trading fantasy owner regrets the big fish that got away, and for me that catch is Chad Billingsley. His April form looked messy at first glance (1-4 record, 5.20 ERA, 1.59 ratio), but with 40 strikeouts over 27.2 innings and just two homers allowed, it wasn't tricky to see that better days were ahead. I dabbled in some Billingsley talks, but didn't close as aggressively as I should have.

With that in mind, it was hard for me to watch as Billingsley toyed with free-swinging Florida Sunday, dominating with a live heater, a biting slider and a tight curve (7 IP, 5 H,1 R, 0 BB, 13 K). Nasty but efficient, with a little ego thrown in – heck, this guy hails from Defiance, Ohio, of all places. The Marlins did their share to help out – the Fish lead the league in strikeouts and go up to the dish hacking – but if this Billingsley performance didn't resonate with you, you're not a baseball fan. Next time, I'm trusting my instincts and pushing harder in those trade talks.

The Dodgers didn't need a closer Sunday but if they had, Jonathan Broxton would have gotten the call. Takashi Saito left Saturday's game with a tender elbow, and he'll have an MRI Monday.

CC Sabathia brought the goods to his second Milwaukee start, going the route and throwing 122 pitches against Cincinnati (8 H, 2 R, 1 BB, 9 K). The big-bellied Brewer eventually got a win when his mates pushed David Weathers around in the bottom of the ninth. Here's one other piece of Sabathia news – CC, pick up that guitar bat and talk to me. (Prince Fielder, I think you enjoyed that a little too much.)

Another keg-tapper in Arlington, where the Rangers held on for a 12-11 win over Chicago. Rather than list all the goodies that came from this one, we'll commiserate on the guys who didn't go off: Paul Konerko (0-for-6, nine men left on base), Ramon Vazquez (0-for-4), and story of the year Josh Hamilton (0-for-4). C.J. Wilson worked the final inning for Texas, in a non-save spot, and promptly gave up five hits and three runs to keep it interesting. Someday we need to do a study of how closers fare when asked to pitch without a stat available to them; anecdotally, it seems they get hammered quite often in these cases.

Matt Joyce continues to justify the Big Noise endorsement, blasting his ninth homer of the year Sunday, a mammoth shot into the Comerica Park shrubbery in center field. And reports of Justin Verlander's fantasy death were greatly exaggerated; he's been useful in 11 of his last 12 starts, and for the most part he was outstanding against Minnesota here (7 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 2 BB, 8 K). Joel Zumaya did a high-wire act in the eighth inning but escaped (21 pitches, two walks, just seven strikes), then Todd Jones pitched a clean and uneventful ninth.

The save embargo finally lifted in Cleveland, with Masa Kobayashi recording the first Indians save in 17 days. It was a clean and leash-extending frame from Kobayashi (just eight pitches needed, one strikeout), who should be owned in all mixers by now. It was a strange afternoon for Cleveland starter Jeremy Sowers; he's normally a control master who doesn't miss many bats, but he pitched with his hair on fire against Tampa Bay (4 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 7 BB, 8 K).

A.J. Burnett didn't have any problems with short rest, mowing through the Yanks pretty easily (8.1 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 8 K). The Toronto front office surely appreciates the outing, because it will be aggressively trying to move Burnett to a contender for the rest of the month. Give a good look to the Toronto lineup today and have a chuckle; here's hoping your fantasy roster isn't littered with too many of these guys. At least the refreshments are always tasty in the YYZ.

In the effort to prove I don't have an anti-Astros bias, let's mention that Ty Wigginton is 12-for-36 this month with four homers (including one today), and he fills three infield positions in Y! leagues. Handy guy. Minute Maid Park is also No. 1 on my "parks not visited yet" list. Houston, we got no problem. Maybe over the break I'll take out Ball Four (unquestionably the best sports book ever) and skip to the Astros stuff in August.

We lost another useful rover on Sunday when Jerry Hairston went down with a hamstring strain. He'll have an MRI Monday. Hairston is holding out hope that perhaps he's looking at a leg cramp and nothing worse.

With Daisuke Matsuzaka, the ends once again justify the means (6 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 5 BB, 7 K) as he improved to 10-1 with a win over Baltimore. Can you stand watching him pitch? I'm a Boston fan, for crying out loud, and he drives me crazy – nibble, nibble, nibble. Sean Casey went 2-for-2 with a pair of walks and is now hitting .373 in his limited time this year (124 at-bats). He might be in line for more PT if there's anything to Kevin Youkilis's left triceps contusion (X-rays came back negative, which remember, is good news).

The term "loud mechanics" was tailor-made for Francisco Rodriguez. He winds up loud, he delivers loud, he celebrates loud. Of course he also celebrates a lot, notching save No. 38 at Oakland Sunday, dodging a bases-loaded jam that he created. This certainly hasn't been K-Rod's best year by the peripherals, but the Angels are winning a slew of close games, and that feeds his bottom line.

The Mets are optimistic that Pedro Martinez (shoulder/groin/hip) will not need to miss a turn. But based on past Pedro experiences, I'm skeptical. And with a nine-game winning streak entering the break (Mike Pelfrey spun a beauty Sunday night), New York certainly doesn't have to rush anything here.

Ichiro Suzuki passed on an invitation to Monday's Home Run Hitting Contest, in part because of his hamstring issue. A curious invite, given that Ichiro doesn't have an extra-base hit since June 14. Who gets the next call, David Eckstein?

Did I ever tell you this is not an injury blog? Nonetheless, guys get hurt and we need to discuss some: Hanley Ramirez (shoulder) was not in the lineup Sunday, but no one seems that worried here. … Kevin Slowey is dealing with a fingernail problem and will move to the back of the line in the Minnesota rotation; his next start won't come until a week from Monday. … Adam LaRoche has a minor thumb injury but was able to pinch-hit Sunday. … Magglio, we miss you so: Ordonez (oblique) will start a rehab assignment Monday. … Brad Penny is playing catch again and might be back by the end of the month. Teammate Jeff Kent sat Sunday with a tight back.

The most ironic moment of our time – Alanis Morisette misunderstanding the meaning of the word in her song "Ironic."

It's not easy to make the All-Star team with a 4.13 ERA as a non-closing reliever, but that's what Carlos Marmol has done, replacing Kerry Wood (blister). Marmol was absolutely unhittable for two months, but he's been in a funk since the beginning of June (16.1 IP, 14 H, 17 ER, 13 BB, 16 K, 4 HR).

Speed round: Homer Bailey was passable in his most recent audition, other than the Sabathia bomb (5.2 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 0 BB, 4 K). … Carl Crawford got the day off Sunday, dealing with an 0-for-25 slump and a sore hammy. … Xavier Nady picked up three more hits and continues to get dangled to the contending clubs. Tampa Bay is one logical destination. … We like Mike Aviles and you should too (4-0-3-2 line Sunday, with a bag). … Jeff Clement has only 10 hits in his last 65 at-bats, but half of those hits are home runs. … Jeff Francoeur's first week back: 5-for-21, one homer, no walks, five strikeouts. … Three more hits and a homer for Kevin Kouzmanoff, who's at .341 with four homers over the last three weeks. His ownership level was under 50 percent entering the week. … Brandon Morrow wrapped up his ninth save, a key bounce-back after two straight hiccups. He was only asked to get two batters; Arthur Rhodes opened the ninth against Ross Gload (fly out). … The Rays lost seven straight entering the break; maybe they can get some celebrity batting tips from this guy on July 19. Break it down. … Jonathan Papelbon and Brian Wilson both struggled Sunday, but still got handshakes at the end (28 for Pap, 25 for the Beach Boy). It was a cleaner day for B.J. Ryan (18), getting two batters in relief of Burnett.

That's it for the first half, amigos. As for the next 90 hours or so to come, let's be careful out there.

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